Americas & Beyond | June 2008
|New Group Hopes to Bring Overseas Youth Vote Home|
Samantha Hammer - yvo.overseasvotefoundation.org
In the face of mounting criticism of U.S. foreign policy from overseas, young Americans are going abroad in increasing numbers to study and work. As they adopt a more global perspective, however, the members of this adventurous group have no intention of giving up their stake in American democracy.
|With the recent creation of a new website, Youth Vote Overseas, OVF has solidified its commitment to young voters.|
According to the Guardian, voter registration by Americans overseas has increased by 400% since the elections of 2000, and the nonprofit, nonpartisan Overseas Vote Foundation (OVF) reports that 30% of voters registering from its website are between the ages of 18 and 29.
These statistics suggest that the overseas youth vote should be garnering the same kind of attention and support that have bolstered the stateside youth vote since the dramatic elections of 2000. That is far from the current situation: American youth abroad have been left waiting at the doorway of the political process, with 10-40% of votes from abroad going uncounted.
OVF wants to help young voters abroad change this situation. With their new initiative, Youth Vote Overseas (YVO), OVF encourages young Americans around the globe to assert themselves and join in the movement to make strengthening American democracy the cause of their generation.
Since its creation in 2005, OVF has considered young people a key segment of the overseas vote. Thanks in large part to OVF, absentee voting information is included in the study abroad orientation packets of hundreds of colleges and universities.
In 2007 YVO was launched via a Facebook group that continues to bring young voters to the OVF homepage to register, and with the recent creation of a new website, Youth Vote Overseas, OVF has solidified its commitment to young voters.
With this new initiative, OVF provides a space in which young Americans abroad can inform themselves and come together to promote the cause of absentee voting. At the YVO website visitors can register to vote using the OVF’s acclaimed registration tool, check out OVF’s latest projects and get updates on electoral and voter activism news from a wide variety of sources.
They can also find links to non-partisan US-based organizations like 18in’08, SAVE (the Student Association for Voter Empowerment) and Project Vote Smart where they can get involved in youth-driven projects in the U.S.
From the YVO website they can access the Facebook group where they can engage in dialogue regarding the issues they care about, link up with other young voters interested in doing outreach projects in their local communities and online, or join current OVF projects.
By seeking to empower young overseas voters with these resources, OVF is honoring the unique perspectives of this demographic group, which has direct experience with U.S. international relations and foreign policy impacting Americans and non-Americans around the globe.
Many young citizens abroad, such as Lauren Goldstein, an English teacher and YVO member living in France, feel that "Americans abroad are an important voting bloc because they are often more aware of the global issues which affect the U.S. and are more in tune with international opinion about the U.S." As Goldstein points out, her demographic’s bird’s-eye view on American politics has the potential to call increased attention to the effect that U.S. policy has on the rest of the world.
Getting the votes of youth overseas cast and counted is a difficult enterprise, and not just for logistical reasons. OVF hopes that the blend of resources it has assembled for YVO will help young Americans abroad address the psychological barriers that hinder them from voting and expressing their political opinions to the U.S. public. The format of YVO acknowledges that a major obstacle for this demographic is the mental divide between themselves and people and events at home: youth abroad report feeling "removed from U.S. politics," "not as connected," and that they "don’t have a strong voice in national politics."
It’s easy to see why Americans living abroad can feel detached from the voting process, even though they are able to follow each minute development in the political climate in real time on the Internet.
Most politicians aren’t concerned with the overseas vote, voters abroad are generally not addressed as a constituency, and they do not have directly elected representation in Congress for the "overseas" population as a community in and of itself.
There is also a glaring lack of adequate social networks specifically aimed at keeping politically interested young people living abroad involved in U.S. politics. Without such networks, it can be difficult or impossible for those with ties to advocacy circles at home to maintain those connections or find similar groups abroad.
Young people overseas who have never been politically active will generally find few voices motivating them to get involved from overseas. Without an active social web to plug into, especially for young people accustomed to gathering strength and motivation through online interaction, these young Americans overseas can acutely feel every mile separating them from their home country.
Despite the reasons they could be discouraged from getting involved, YVO members are already showing that they are willing and able to use the foundation of YVO to build stronger, civically active communities of Americans abroad. YVO volunteers have facilitated youth voter registration drives in Grenada, written articles for expat newsletters in Japan, and disseminated registration cards on military bases in Italy, to name a few recent activities.
At the same time, others are taking advantage of links to US-based organizations that help them feel closer to home: members in Japan and Israel are currently collaborating with 18in08, the nonprofit founded by David Burstein, Newsweek’s College Vanguard Filmmaker of 2008, on a video project that aims to foster creative exchange between American youth at home and abroad.
Burstein asserts the importance of giving young people abroad a special conduit to connect back with U.S. politics. "Too often we forget about young people who are living overseas, and the challenges they have in connecting to the political process at home... Young people overseas certainly could benefit from increased support, information, and awareness about their rights and responsibilities in respect to voting. Overseas Vote Foundation has been the leader in this field for some time, and we're incredibly excited to be working with them."
Thanks to support from organizations like Burstein’s and the enthusiastic outreach being done by YVO members, YVO’s message is finding its way to a growing number of Americans around the globe. This suggests that the networks that will motivate more youth abroad to be civically active citizens are slowly and steadily taking shape.
As part of their efforts to enable all Americans overseas to register and vote, OVF hopes that YVO will help inspire the new generation of overseas voters to assume their unique role in the civic dialogue.
As OVF’s Director of Voter Outreach, Marina Mecl, explains, "Millennials are proving to be a special generation of young people – they are extremely engaged and concerned about our government and the well-being of our nation and the world. Contrary to common belief, they are pro-active and passionately disseminating information about elections, voting, candidates and issues."
Ms. Mecl and the rest of the OVF team are confident that this crop of capable young Americans will add their voices to those of millions of young people in the U.S. calling on their fellow Americans to strengthen their democracy.
Samantha Hammer is a volunteer for Youth Vote Overseas and works as an English teacher in Japan.