November 4th is Melbourne Cup Day, a day when Melbourne, Australia — which I currently call home — closes down to host the biggest horse race in the world. On Melbourne Cup Day I’ll be reading exit polls and shouting my thoughts all over the Internet in order to help get out the vote in preparation for November 5th, the day the United States' midterm elections fall on in Australia. I live 19 hours ahead of California, my home state, so I’ll be watching returns on the 5th in a bar with other interested American expats, including a friend I met on an airplane who helped convince me to move to Australia for love. She, like me, has moved from the USA to be with a partner. She, like me, loves an election.
I love election day, and I will not miss it just because I live in a different hemisphere. Like every other election since I first lived abroad in 2007, I will have cast my absentee ballot from abroad.
Americans living abroad offer a unique perspective on elections at home, and we should not shirk our responsibility just because it’s less convenient. Voting at home is no cake-walk for some, but voting from abroad requires more forethought and research than if we were at home. We have to register with our state’s Registrar of Voters, we have to pay for postage on our ballots, and we don’t get time off to vote. We don’t see the yard signs or television ads, and our social media accounts may be watered down with non-American friends’ posts, so we may miss out on some of the conversation going on about the U.S. political landscape. We may feel like we care less about what happens at home because we’ve made our lives elsewhere and dedicated our lives to new causes in our new homes. For those of us who are not citizens in the countries we call home, we may feel disenfranchised or torn between affiliations, and end up not voting at all.
We must vote, however, not just despite being abroad but because of it.
For the four years I lived in the UK, I could not vote there. In my nearly one year in Australia — where voting is compulsory for citizens — I don’t have the right to vote either. As a politically-minded person, I naturally find myself embroiled in political conversations, signing petitions and picking favorite politicians when I’m abroad. And yet, I have no formal avenue by which to take part in making local, state, or federal decisions here.
As an American abroad, I have often found myself in situations that require me to be an ambassador of sorts. I was living in London during the lead up to (and aftermath of) the 2008 election. I remember ordering a drink in a loud bar when the bartender recognized my accent (which was not rare in London… there is a big expat community, as you’d expect in such a global city). She asked who I was voting for, and I was caught off guard. “Obama!” I yelled over the bass-heavy music as she handed me my change. I didn’t tip — it’s not customary to tip for drinks in a bar in London — and walked away thinking not only of my preferred presidential candidate, but his promise to raise the federal minimum wage. That would mean that people like this bartender could rely on their employers to pay them a fair wage, rather than a generous customer to fill in the gap between livable and unlivable wages, like we do in America.
The next day I got on the bus, as I did every morning to get to work. I have often thought about how southern California should invest in a massive commute overhaul and create viable public transportation options. As I tapped my Oyster Card on the reader and thanked the bus driver, I was stopped. “You American?” he asked. When I replied in the affirmative, he stopped me. “Wait… you’re voting for Obama right? We need him!” Again, I replied in the affirmative and walked on, searching for a place to stand on the crowded rush hour bus. The man I stood next to gave an approving nod. Of the 20 or so conversations I had — none of which I had initiated — every single stranger I spoke to implored me to vote for Barack Obama. For them, he felt like the way forward in international diplomacy. Not many countries’ elections illicit such passion from non-natives, but ours do because of who we are in the world. I felt privileged to get to vote after having these conversations, knowing what I knew.
(The Guardian the day after the 2008 election)
I could fill pages with anecdotes like these. My most recent run in was in Melbourne, with an academic researcher to whom I was introduced as “Phylisa, who comes from California.” She immediately proceeded ask if I knew how many of our “parliamentarians” had been abroad, and told me that I’d be astounded at the low number. She said that since we were such a major world superpower, we had a responsibility to experience the wider world. I quickly pointed out that we don’t have a parliament, we have a Congress with a directly elected leader, so her point about being “worldly” felt moot. And yet, her sentiment is one shared by people all over the world: we have too much power to have so little international perspective.
Although I’m always the first to list reasons for this and defend (some of) our elected leadership, I don’t disagree (although I couldn’t find data on how many members of congress have been overseas). As a huge, diverse nation, we don’t emphasize travel and cultural learning like other OECD countries do. There isn’t a “gap year” culture, where students are encouraged to travel internationally between high school and university, or just after university. In an article for The Atlantic, Eliot Gerson writes about those of us who go abroad and then return home:
“These young Americans usually return with an openness about the world that many of their parents lack. No less patriotic than when they left, they see how curiosity about other ways to do things can only make us a stronger country. They were taught, as we were all taught, that the U.S. was built to greatness on ideas borrowed by the rest of the world and improved here. That is what we must do again.”
So those of us who do have those experiences absolutely must weigh in, not because we are smug or think we know better, but because we have experiences in cultural and policy learning that are valuable. For example, I’ve now lived in two countries with some form of universal, state-funded health care (the National Health Service in the UK and Medicare in Australia). Before I’d experienced health care on the NHS, I might also have been afraid of losing some of the comfort associated with my excellent health care experience or feared long waiting times and over-worked, under-paid doctors. I genuinely felt for my family and friends who had those fears but was able to assuage them, even slightly, with stories of my own experiences.
The United States of America is the country that wants my vote. This is the country where in the years leading up to winning suffrage in 1920, women fought and died for my right to do so. People have asked why I “hate America” or “don’t want to be American.” If I did hate America or I didn’t want to be American — neither of which are true — I wouldn’t vote from abroad. But I don’t hate America and my American identity is a huge part of who I am. Do I wish I had several passports? Yes. Do I resent my grandparents for coming to America too soon and thus rendering me ineligible for any foreign citizenship? A little. But that’s where my family is; America is my default. And I owe it to my ancestors who chose it, my aging grandparents, my family who work within the American economy, and those who are in American public schools to give a damn.
So I voted in this election, even though I’m not getting a sticker for it. If you’re living or studying abroad, I hope you did too. Our country relies on us just as much as it relies on those living there.