After graduating high school in Georgia in 1969, Herbert Ruffin was drafted into the military to serve as an infantryman in Vietnam. A year later, he was badly wounded in a firefight. He was awarded the Purple Heart and went on to serve his country for more than two decades.
But when it came time to retire, Ruffin chose to continue living abroad.
"The quality of life for me, as a person of color — there was better opportunities for me to live in Germany," he says. "I was born in the 1950s, so I came through some very challenging years being raised in the South."
Ruffin, 72, remains a registered voter in Maryland, where he typically votes for Democrats. He says he still feels a deep sense of patriotism and takes voting as an American overseas seriously.
"Where I grew up, opportunities to vote were restricted," he says. "I have a voice and I can encourage others to vote and let them know they can vote from abroad."
Ruffin is one of at least 3 million American expatriates of voting age, a voting bloc that organizers and researchers are still trying to understand in an era of data-driven political targeting.
It's a group with the potential to wield substantial power, if fully activated.
"It can be significant, because the margins in our polarized electoral climate are so tight," says Jay Sexton, director of the Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy at the University of Missouri. "Political power of overseas Americans is latent; it's waiting to be realized."
There are a couple reasons for that. Unlike the military, the exact number of civilian Americans living abroad isn't known. It's a diverse group that includes dual citizens, college students spending a semester abroad, retirees who've opted to spend their golden years in southern Spain and digital nomads who've taken their work abroad with a strong Wi-Fi connection and the blessing of their U.S. employer.
The Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP), the program established to administer the law that enables overseas citizens to vote, estimates that in 2018, there were 4.8 million U.S. citizens living abroad, 3 million of whom were of voting age.
"One of the reasons why it's so difficult to get a really good estimate of how many American citizens actually live abroad is that the U.S. government doesn't gather much data on it," explains Tara Ginnane, a political scientist who studies the engagement of American citizens abroad. "There are no surveys of people who are emigrating, there is no census category for people who live abroad, they aren't included in the census."
Researchers can look at the numbers of expatriates who come into contact with consulates or embassies to help extrapolate data, but even then, it's a self-selecting group that doesn't tell the full story.
"It's just really difficult to make generalizations about this extremely diverse, heterogeneous group of people," Ginnane says.
One thing that unites this disparate group? Voter turnout. It's low — incredibly low.
In the 2020 general election, the FVAP estimates 224,139 votes were cast by citizens abroad who aren't in the military, the equivalent to a voting rate of 7.8%. That compares to an overall turnout rate of 66.8%.
But this elusive group holds a shimmering promise for political organizers who could crack the code to unlocking the bloc's potential.
"What we're looking at here is a large number of people that could swing elections if they turned out," says Sexton, of the University of Missouri. "But despite efforts by both parties, it's been a really tough nut to crack."
There's a distinct knowledge and infrastructure gap for overseas citizens
A common trap when thinking about the overseas vote is to conflate it with those serving in the military. The active-duty military has a much higher voter participation rate — 47% voted in 2020.
"Military personnel are very much plugged into American institutions that are able to provide the logistical support, the reminders to vote and all the information on how to vote," Ginnane says. "That's part of why overseas citizens' turnout is so low, because they don't have that logistical support, and they're on their own with figuring out how and when to vote."
Common obstacles for overseas voters include:
- infrastructure, like getting to a post office, waiting for ballots to arrive in mail systems that might not always be efficient, and having a reliable internet connection;
- information, as not everybody knows you can vote abroad as a U.S. citizen;
"There's varying levels of interest and levels of people feeling themselves to be American enough and invested enough in the country's future to go get a ballot and bother to return it," Ginnane says.
To varying degrees, both the Republican and Democratic parties have tried to bridge that gap
For the left, it's an apparatus called Democrats Abroad that is fully integrated into the party. Established in 1964, Democrats Abroad holds a global primary in presidential years and is considered one of the Democratic National Committee's 56 state and territory organizations.
"There have been a number of different organizations that have been the [right-leaning] counterpart to Democrats Abroad, but haven't quite had the staying power and institutional stamina that the Democrats have," Sexton says. "The old quip about, you're not a member of an organized party if you're a Democrat, but when it comes to overseas, I think Democrats have been more organized."
In September, Democrats Abroad hosted a virtual rally, where candidates in key states this election cycle — like Senate nominees John Fetterman, Mandela Barnes and Tim Ryan — made video appeals to get out the vote.
"American citizens living abroad are often the margin of victory in our elections," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said at the rally in a prerecorded message. "When you vote, you make a difference. In 2018, when we took the House, our blue wave was tiny drops of water, very close races, and the margin of victory was from the military and overseas ballots."
Candice Kerestan, the international chair of Democrats Abroad, told NPR that a big component of this cycle's organizing efforts was a worldwide voter registration day, where the group set up registration booths in over 50 countries.
"We also run social media and digital advertising campaigns, and we run a voter help desk around the clock so if people have questions on how to vote from abroad, we'll assist them," she says.
Lauren Ell, a Republican voter who moved from California to Sweden in 2016 to be with her Swedish partner, says Democrats' organization and built-in infrastructure make her wistful.
"I have found the Democrats to be much more organized," she says. "They are investing in their organization for Americans living abroad, whereas the Republican Party does not."
There was an organization called Republicans Abroad that closed in 2013, leading most of its chapters to migrate to Republicans Overseas, a group that is active but doesn't have the same involvement between the national Republican Party as its Democratic counterpart.
Ell, 34, started a group called Nordic Republicans to help mobilize American conservatives in Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland and Denmark. She says these voices have a lot to offer their party back home.
"When you have Americans who are actually having to work with the systems and the governments abroad, they provide a really important perspective," she says. "When it comes to health care, when it comes to gun control — I think it's really important to hear directly from Americans living in Sweden what exactly it is like."
"Many of us track what happens in America"
Carol Moore, who lives in London with a second home in Palm Beach County, Fla., leads the Florida team of Democrats Abroad. She's been phone banking for the midterm election.
"Many of us track what happens in America and act as ambassadors," she says, adding many U.K. citizens approach her with questions on U.S. policy, including the recent Supreme Court decision overturning the constitutional right to an abortion.
"It was truly shocking," says Moore, who was a law student in the 1970s when Roe v. Wade was decided. "I feel like the U.S. is regressing," she sighs. "And also, if they're taking this right away from women, what will be next in terms of racial equality, LGBTQ equality?"
For Nicolas Conquer, a French dual citizen living in Paris who is originally from Minnesota, the top issue is inflation and the economy — closely matching national polls of stateside voters.
"Prices surging, inflation, energy — the current administration has totally failed," says Conquer, 36, the spokesperson for Republican Overseas France.
"The repercussions of living abroad through these reckless policies in the U.S. — we're going to be affected by restrictions, cutting pipelines like the Keystone XL Pipeline, being more dependent [on] other sources," he says. "It's really going to affect us locally, wherever we are, whether it be countries in Europe or other areas in the world are really going to be directly impacted by the policy conducted by the White House and supported by the Congress."
Cory Lemke is an Arizona voter who's lived in South Korea — home of his birth family — for 10 years.
The international treasurer for Democrats Abroad says watching from afar as false claims of election fraud and the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol unfurled was upsetting and led him to reflect on just how fragile democracy is.
"It's really odd, because our democracy in South Korea is because of the United States," he says. "And so much of the narrative in South Korea and democracy is about the United States and living up to that standard. It's really weird to see the United States having these issues with the preservation of democracy and perceived issues with election integrity."
Lemke adds that living in another country allows him to look at U.S. policy — and what is possible — with new eyes.
"South Korea is by no stretch of the imagination a communist-socialist country," he says. "You know, we've fought a war about this, and we have universal health care and to watch that be the conversation in the debates in the U.S. is really odd. I feel I have to educate people about universal health care and how wonderful it is."
Lemke says his adopted parents, whom he calls Reagan Republicans, have shifted their perspective on health care policy somewhat, given his experiences in South Korea.
"They see the benefits, they see a lived example of — OK, maybe universal health care isn't a communist program."
Just how powerful could this group be? It's complicated
Political scientist Ginnane warns against thinking of overseas voters as the 51st state, with equivalent political might.
"It's important to resist that temptation a little because one has to remember that they're voting in all 50 states," she explains. "So their voting potential is kind of cracked and diffused."
And since tracking this group remains challenging, it's not possible for campaigns to zero in on which constituencies could have the biggest impact in contentious races.
But even with low turnout and challenges with mobilization, overseas voters have, at times, played an important role in elections.
Perhaps the most notable example is the presidential election of 2000 between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Gore was narrowly ahead. A cache of late-arriving Florida ballots from overseas — both military and civilian — gave Bush the edge by 537 votes.
"These votes really mattered," Ginnane says. "They don't matter any more than any individual vote but in a very tight election like that, and especially when they arrive late and are counted separately, they begin to look as though they're extremely influential."
A similar story played out in 2006, when overseas voters played a role in Virginian Jim Webb's Senate victory.
And in 2020, thousands of ballots were counted from overseas in states like Arizona and Georgia — two states crucial to Joe Biden's presidential win.