MEXICO CITY — Ann Brandt, a 66-year-old fiction writer in Mexico, last cast a presidential ballot for John F. Kennedy in 1960. Roxanne Bachmann, 52, a voice-over artist in Spain, has never voted in her native America. Nor has David Stern, a 38-year-old graphic designer who moved to Israel two decades ago.
But all three U.S. citizens and hundreds of thousands of others who live abroad have demanded absentee ballots for the Nov. 2 presidential election, stirred by a partisan sense of urgency that surpasses anything veteran U.S. political activists in many countries say they have ever witnessed.
Democratic and Republican organizers say the upsurge in registration abroad has burdened an already unwieldy system of absentee voting, causing frustration among the many overseas Americans who have yet to receive ballots from their home states.
"Everything about this election is triple the size of elections before," said Zachary Miller, executive vice chairman of Democrats Abroad France, who has lived in Paris for 14 years. "We usually have registration drives, but this time we have people coming to us — people who have been here 20 or 30 years and never voted before."
Party preferences of Americans abroad are as hard to measure as their precise numbers, estimated to be at least 4 million civilians plus about 550,000 military personnel and dependents. But supporters of President Bush and his Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry, say the divide between the expatriate camps is as razor-sharp as it is at home, and focused more acutely on issues of foreign policy and the United States' standing in the world.
"This is the time to stand up and be counted if there ever was one," Brandt said. Driven by anger over the war in Iraq, she and Bachmann intend to mail in Florida ballots for Kerry. Bachmann said antiwar sentiment among her Spanish friends, "who are all against Bush," has bolstered her own.
Stern will mark his Ohio ballot for Bush. "It's critical for the whole world," he said. "America is taking the lead in the battle against terrorism, defending the security of the whole world."
Voters like them are being courted aggressively. Party organizers have been busy nearly everywhere Americans gather overseas — American bookstores and cafes, expatriate clubs, universities, movie theaters showing "Fahrenheit 9/11," the Lake Chapala Chili Cook-Off in Mexico, Gay Pride weekend in Toronto, a golf tournament in Vietnam.
Both parties are using star power to attract voters. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger stumped in Israel for the GOP. Diana Kerry, the candidate's sister, launched Americans Overseas for Kerry and made well-publicized visits to 10 countries.
The Pentagon, which is also working harder to get out the overseas vote, designated last week as "absentee voting week" at bases abroad. Every military unit was assigned a nonpartisan "voting assistance officer" to help with the process.
Most overseas military personnel are presumed to favor Bush. According to the Pentagon, 60% of them cast ballots in the 2000 presidential race, compared with 51.3% of U.S. voters at large. Far fewer civilians living overseas — one-fourth or less, according to many estimates — have bothered to vote in previous elections because of difficulties in obtaining and returning absentee ballots.
The 2000 election changed that. Bush's official 537-vote margin in Florida drew attention to the thousands of overseas ballots counted in that state after election day. Both parties responded by paying more attention this time to voters abroad.
The effort is paying off, judging from evidence in several countries. Susannah Glusker, a Democratic activist in Mexico since 1988, said she had helped about 1,000 voters register this time, about five times as many as in any previous campaign here.
"Some people are like Rip Van Winkle waking up after 20 years," said Robert Pingeon, chairman of Republicans Abroad Europe.
Americans say the biggest motivation is the intensity of popular feeling in their adopted lands against Bush. Many are embarrassed or alarmed and fear becoming targets of anti-American attacks, whereas others admire Bush's resistance to the criticism and feel moved to stand up for him.
"While the United States should never make its prime objective to win an international popularity contest, there are real concerns about how we are perceived overseas and the negative effects a go-it-alone strategy has had for our country," said John Kael Weston, 32, a civilian advisor to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq. "Americans like to be liked, and right now we are not — at least Bush is not, and we are paying the price."
The foreign cultures in which they are immersed can exert enormous peer pressure on Americans. "In Spain there's a generalized anti-Bush opinion in the media, so I can't think the same way an American living in the United States would," said Eric Napoli, a 32-year-old lawyer in Madrid. "In the United States you actually find reasonable people who are pro-Bush. Spaniards believe it's unthinkable to be pro-Bush."
"There's a lot of anger directed against America at the moment," said Drake Lawhead, 22, a graduate student in international relations at the London School of Economics. He said he was voting for Bush because "I feel the need to defend America against abuse."
There is little surveying of overseas Americans' voting intentions, but in August, a Zogby poll of Americans who have passports found that they supported Kerry over Bush, 58% to 35%. Those numbers, analysts said, suggest that a higher voting rate abroad — particularly among students, aid workers and retired people — might help the Democratic candidate.
Votes abroad could have a marginal effect in several swing states. According to Americans Overseas for Kerry, Florida has about 306,000 expatriate voters, Pennsylvania 252,000, Washington 198,000, Michigan 192,000 and Ohio 162,000.
Meanwhile, the campaign has created a new set of electoral "battleground states" around the world — notably Iraq, South Korea, Italy and Israel.
Weston, the Marine advisor, and his friends post Democratic fliers in the hallways of Saddam Hussein's former palace. Bush supporters tear them down. Weston's year-old group, Donkeys in the Desert, claims about two dozen activists among the 140,000 U.S. troops and the thousands of civilians serving in Iraq.
A Republican counterpart, Baghdadis for Bush, was formed later. Washington lawyer Timothy B. Mills, who was a Bush operative in Florida in 2000, has been working to register U.S. defense contract employees in Iraq, Kuwait and Jordan.
Overt campaigning on U.S. military bases is against federal law, but animated political discussion in Baghdad takes place in the mess halls and on the walls. "George Bush is a draft dodger, you moron," reads one scribbling on a portable Army toilet. "You worthless Dumb-O-crat," reads another. "If you vote for [Kerry] the military won't have any jobs!"
"The military leans Republican," Weston acknowledged. "But I am certain the vote split from Iraq will not be as overwhelmingly pro-Bush this year" because so many of the troops are in the Army Reserve and National Guard and feel "overstretched and under-resourced," he said.
Sensing division over Iraq among U.S. troops stationed in Italy, Democratic activists have conducted their first registration drives in Naples and Aviano, home to U.S. military bases. In South Korea, the Democrats have been barred from U.S. military bases, while Republicans have been allowed in to set up booths and tents.
"We're there on a nonpartisan basis
. I cannot tell them who to vote for," said John Lee, chairman of the Korea chapter of Republicans Abroad. But his booths have small "Republicans Abroad" signs on them, he acknowledged. "Whoever comes to our tent, most of them are Republicans."
In Israel, where Americans traditionally vote Democrat, Kerry supporters concede that Bush's pro-Israel record and emphasis on fighting terrorism will help him gain ground. An estimated 40,000 Americans in Israel have asked for ballots this year; about 14,000 voted there four years ago.
With two weeks to go until election day, both parties are focused on an unexpected and daunting task — distributing federal write-in ballots to thousands who have not received regular absentee ballots from county election boards.
Absentee ballots have been held up by a series of missteps. At least 18 states failed to mail them out by Sept. 19, a deadline considered necessary to ensure that they could be returned on time. Many ballots went out with insufficient postage.
Joffre de La Fontaine, a 72-year-old Air Force veteran living in Mexico, said his application for an Illinois ballot went unanswered until he called a clerk in Jackson County, the last place he voted. "You've been abroad for 35 years? Then you're no longer an American," he said the clerk told him. La Fontaine protested, was allowed to reapply and finally received his ballot.
For frustrated overseas voters, there is one final option. Bill Gorman, a financial-markets consultant registered in Los Angeles who is working temporarily in Baghdad to help the fledgling Iraq Stock Exchange convert to electronic trading, knows only one way to make sure his vote counts. "Travelers like me are not well served by the absentee ballot process," he said. "So I intend to fly home in time to vote."
Times staff writers Edmund Sanders, Monte Morin and Thomas S. Mulligan in Baghdad, Esther Schrader in Washington, Tracy Wilkinson in Rome, Sebastian Rotella in Paris, Janet Stobart in London, David Holley in Moscow, Richard C. Paddock in Singapore, Ken Ellingwood in Jerusalem and Barbara Demick in Seoul, and special correspondent Cristina Mateo-Yanguas in Madrid contributed to this report.
© Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times