Fifty Years Beyond US Borders
As Democrats Abroad reaches its half century, Sharon Manitta explains how it started and what its role is today.
Fifty years ago, Democrats Abroad began as a joint venture between Democrats in the U.K. and France as an organization that fought for a dozen years to secure the right to vote for Americans living overseas, finally succeeding with the assistance of Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill. Now, DA has grown to become a global body with committees in 50 countries and members in over 150 countries around the world.
In 1972, the Democratic National Committee (aka the DNC, the ruling body of the party) granted Democrats Abroad 9 non–voting delegates to National Convention. Then, in 1976, Democrats Abroad cast their first federally mandated overseas absentee ballots and gained the full status of a full Democratic state committee, with voting delegates to the National Convention and members on the DNC. Democrats Abroad now holds eight seats on the DNC and sent a 25–strong (19 vote) delegation to the 2012 Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The Democratic Party is the only major U.S. political party that affords this opportunity to its members living outside America.
U.S. citizens living outside the States are not counted in the (U.S.) census so there is no firm number for the number of Americans living around the world. The "guestimate" used is 6, 320,000 but it could be much higher because of the ebb and flow of this population. Some live overseas for decades, some are on work contracts and then there is the most fluid group – students who can be at school abroad from six months to four years or more.
This is a trend that began after WWII and continues today because of the ease of communication and travel (but there is always the hurdle of work permits!).
The bulk of this group are not military or government workers but middle class citizens – teachers, doctors, lawyers, students, aid workers – who carry their American culture with them. One former U.S. ambassador referred to us as our nation's "unpaid ambassadors".
Democrats Abroad's main responsibility is to register Americans around the world so they can vote. This is a non–partisan activity. We want to make sure all Americans know they have the right to vote wherever they live.
In the past registering to vote has sometimes been a daunting activity. There are 13,000 individual electoral offices in the United States and they have very different regulations and practices. But Democrats Abroad's on–line registration tool, www.votefromabroad.org, has made registering much easier.
There are still a number of issues that face Americans who are living abroad. For example, voting is still not possible for some American citizens born and living abroad. Transmitting American citizenship to children born outside the U.S. can still be a problem for parents who are unable to meet the U.S. residency requirements.
Immigration can still be a problem for LGBT families when one partner is not a U.S. citizen. While the 2013 Supreme Court decision was a victory and a relief for these couples, the legacy of decades of discrimination, particularly with deportation issues, remains to be rectified.
We are working very hard with legislators and regulators to amend the FATCA law which unintentionally adversely affects overseas Americans both in their personal and business lives. The law is in place to catch those Americans who are hiding assets outside the U.S. to evade taxes. We want these people caught but are urging the American government to re–define an Offshore Account to ‘an account other than in one's country of residence'.
Democrats Abroad's 50th anniversary celebration started at the beginning of March with a gala reception and dinner in Washington, D.C. as well as a number of "Congressional Door Knocks" to meet with Senators and Representatives to discuss these issues. Parties will be held in many of the country committees up to and through this year's midterm election.
So while we work hard on behalf of the American community beyond U.S. borders, we also enjoy celebrating the accomplishments of the past half century. This year's Democrats Abroad U.K.'s Independence Day Picnic in London (July 6) will be extra special as we start our next fifty years.
Democrats Abroad UK's website is www.democratsabroad.org/group/united-kingdom
Sharon Manitta is Democrats Abroad's International Communications Director for Press. Thanks also to Rob Carolina, Carmelan Polce, Bob Brager, Martha McDevitt–Pugh, Maureen Harwood and Amanda Klekowski Von Keppenfels for their contributions to this article.