BRATISLAVA is a long way from Washington, DC, but that has not stopped American expatriate Bill Quam from participating in the US political process. Quam, no stranger to Slovakia or to the American campaign scene, spends his hours outside the office working for Democrats Abroad. Thanks to his efforts, the official Democratic Party organisation for some of the six million plus American citizens living outside the United States will soon boast a local committee: Democrats Abroad Slovakia.
"American expatriates around the world sort of fall between the cracks," Quam, the committee's country chair explains. "We still pay US taxes, but we aren't directly represented in Congress. And Americans at home have many misconceptions about expatriates."
With all the interest in global issues and the upcoming November presidential election, Democrats Abroad has now grown to include committees in over 70 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. These country committees, which have voting rights in the Democratic Party, keep Americans abroad informed of their voting rights and help them to participate in the US political process, even though they are far from home.
Democrats Abroad has also been instrumental in raising awareness of the issues expatriates face whether they are working or just residing abroad: ensuring the easier transmission of American citizenship for children born abroad, fighting to obtain Social Security and Medicare coverage for eligible Americans abroad, and campaigning to maintain the foreign income tax exclusion and to obtain fairer treatment of US taxpayers residing abroad.
But it is the elections that spur the action. Here Quam becomes passionate: "All of us have a voice, even when we are outside the US. Getting people to use that voice is the first step."
To that end, he has taken on a difficult task. After work each night, he sits in Old Town establishments with voter registration materials. "Oh yes," he says with a laugh, "It is a great personal sacrifice to enjoy a pint. But it is even more satisfying to register someone to vote."
Who registers to vote in an Old Town pub? "Oh, all sorts. I've met all sorts of Americans here," Quam explains. "Not just Americans who live in Bratislava, but Americans who live all over Slovakia. American tourists. No, there isn't a huge American population in Slovakia, but there are more of us than you think."
That is work. But what about fun?
Quam laughs, "My fun project is finding a market for Rwandan 'fair trade' coffee. I do believe I need to put my energy where my mouth is. If I do not find a way to make 'fair trade' work, who will?
So why did he start Democrats Abroad? "I met some wonderful people at the Democrats Abroad Austria Fourth of July party," Quam recalls. "I listened to their intensity, their concern, their energy. And I knew I had come home. These were well-organised, serious people, combined with what I feel are serious issues - that, too, increased the intensity of my activism."
For Quam, it is style that counts. He is serious about making voters feel included: "I want to walk away from that table having given everyone something to think about, but leave them all with smiles on their faces in the process.
"It is about reaching out to voters, one at a time if necessary. It is about not being afraid to go up to a table of 10 passionate Bush supporters to discover there is one, maybe even two, who are listening carefully to what I say. It is about being able to walk away from that table with the contact information of the one who will reach out to others who are undecided and help them decide for Kerry.
What will not work now is an in-your-face, confrontational campaign that divides. I believe in giving people facts and telling them that I plan to be around and active after November to ensure the next president listens to the people. Even those of us who live overseas."
The main website is www.Democratsabroad.org.
Sites about the upcoming US elections include the following:
Other, related, websites include
The League of Women Voters www.lwv.com
6. Sep 2004 at 0:00 | Amanda Surbey