An exploration of the Americans Abroad vote, a climate forum is actually happening, what happens if you donate too much to a campaign, and Debate Bingo is here.



Show Transcript

Note: This is the speaking script for the show, so the audio as delivered will differ very slightly from the below. This script also does not include audio clips from third-party sources, or advertisements, which may appear at various points in the show.

An exploration of the Americans Abroad vote

Today our top story is a deep dive on a topic many Americans don’t even know is a thing—and that’s how American citizens living outside the U.S. actually vote and otherwise participate in the election process. This applies to members of the military serving overseas, students studying abroad, people working abroad, and people who simply moved to another country and chose to retain their U.S. citizenship.

First up, some terminology. Folks who move abroad but retain their citizenship are called “expats.” That’s short for “expatriate,” which may sound unpatriotic, but in fact comes from the Latin “Ex patria,” meaning “out of native country.” Okay, so expat is the typical term, though you’ll also hear this constituency referred to as Americans Abroad within the political system.

Okay, so the first big question we have to address is, how exactly do these people vote? They don’t, like, fly back and head to a local polling place—though in many cases they technically could, it just doesn’t work great for the millions of expats who are out there, including in places like Antarctica.

So voting from abroad, on the technical side, is pretty simple—after you move to your new country, you fill out a registration form called the “Federal Post Card Application.” This, plus a few more steps depending on which state you last resided in, set you up for getting an absentee ballot by mail, or in some cases online. Then you just fill in the absentee ballot and return it, either by mail or online or even by fax, depending on how technologically advanced your particular state happens to be. Then you repeat this process every year.

Now here’s something you may not know. Democrats Abroad are their own constituency for the Democratic primary, which is a big part of why we are talking about this today. This group votes on Super Tuesday next year, and they will award a total of 17 delegates based on that international vote. That’s the same number as Wyoming, and just one less than Alaska and North Dakota. So we’re not talking about a HUGE number, but it IS a real constituency. In fact, it’s not far off from Vermont, which has 23 delegates and also votes on Super Tuesday.

Because of this, you might think that primary candidates are actively trying to get support from expat voters. But, to be frank, they are not doing a great job. This came to my attention when listener Ron Steenblik wrote in and got the ball rolling. Steenblik was looking for something pretty simple—he wanted to sign up for email updates from some of the primary candidates. But when he went to their websites, they required him to put in a ZIP Code. Now, again, the U.S.-centric audience may not know this, but ZIP Code is a U.S.-only thing. I could give you a tangent on the Zone Improvement Plan, and it’s taking everything I have not to dive into that, but the point is that most of these forms ask for your name, email address, and ZIP Code. Now Steenblik, who currently lives in France, doesn’t HAVE a ZIP Code. But it’s a REQUIRED field. So…how is he supposed to get email updates?

Well, I looked into this. I visited every single major Democratic primary candidate’s website, and looked at they were doing around email lists and donations and stuff like that. What I found was that, yeah, Steenblik is right, the VAST majority of these candidates are requiring a piece of data, the ZIP Code, that may not exist, and is certainly not necessary in order to, you know, send an email. The reason the campaigns want the ZIP Code is presumably so they can target their emails to certain parts of the US. However, in the world of web development, it’s a best practice to ask for “ZIP or Postal Code,” which allows you to enter the code from whatever country you happen to live in. That would be the proper way to address this situation, AND it would allow candidates to target specific emails to expats! That’s a good thing…and they can’t do it right now.

So anyway, this issue doesn’t just apply to getting email updates. It’s also a problem if you’re trying to host, oh, let’s say, A DEBATE WATCH PARTY. So for instance, if you visit Joe Biden’s website, you can look up events like watch parties. For kicks, I typed in “France,” and got no results. So the form encouraged me to go ahead and make a new event. So I started, and when I entered the street address for the Moulin Rouge, I got the error, “Please enter an address in the U.S. or its territories or commonwealths.” Interesting. So our sample expat, an American voter, Mr. Steenblik, is not allowed to host a watch party, at least on one candidate’s website. He also can’t sign up for email. And most form fields that ask for a phone number are explicitly requiring a U.S.-based number, in the 10-digit format, and cannot handle international numbers (by the way, there are a few exceptions to that, I’ll get there in a moment). But, you know, how exactly is an American in Paris supposed to engage with a candidate’s campaign?

Well, it IS possible to donate money. The ActBlue donation system, which is used by almost all the candidates, does actually have a “country” drop-down list, and although their postal code field is labeled “ZIP” it does accept other kinds of postal codes. So, yeah, they’ll take your money, but you can’t do much else.

So earlier this week, I reached out to every single major Democratic primary candidate on my list, using their press email accounts, asking for a comment on this situation. My specific ask was around the ability for American voters living overseas to sign up for email updates without providing a ZIP Code, and I also mentioned the watch party thing, since that’s obviously coming up soon. And many of them got back right away, saying they were on top of it and would back to me by my Friday-morning deadline. Well, Friday morning came and went. Guess how many candidates actually responded? Just one. Representative Tim Ryan’s campaign gave me this response:

“The campaign is in the process of fixing the website to allow American voters who are living abroad to sign up for email updates. Congressman Ryan is dedicated to serving all Americans, including those that are living overseas.”

So, big ups to Ryan for actually following through. Now, why didn’t I get similar responses from the other two dozen candidates? I don’t know. I’ll update you if I get responses AFTER deadline, which is certainly still possible.

Now, I mentioned earlier that a few candidates did deal with international phone numbers correctly. Both Seth Moulton and Joe Sestak appear to be using a system called “Fast Action,” which does take non-US phone numbers. Good job there, except the Fast Action forms still require a ZIP Code to sign up for email. Well, we got close.

One more interesting note. I did see one example of a candidate asking for a Postal Code, and that’s on Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s “Host a Debate Watch Party” page. I got this link only because it was forwarded to me via email from an expat. HOWEVER, when you fill in anything that really is a Postal Code and not a ZIP Code, the form does not let you proceed. I tried using codes from South Africa and England, but no luck there. So there are still cases where it may LOOK like the site includes international audiences, but then in practice it does not.

So look, the reason I’m devoting time to this is that I’m truly concerned with access to voting and access to candidate information. I did a story a few weeks back on the accessibility of candidates’ websites to people with disabilities, and since then, I actually have seen some changes—and by the way, I’m not the only person who’s talking about that issue, so it’s not like I alone drove that action. Anyway, the ability to get email from a candidate is not in the same league as being able to READ their website AT ALL, and Steenblik wanted to make sure I pointed that out—I agree, and this is not the end of the world, but it is a real blocker for a group of American voters actually trying to engage with the primary candidates. With some minor effort, these candidates could reach a group they are basically ignoring right now, and that would help them in the primary.

One last statistic I want to leave you with. This comes from a Department of Defense study released on September 12th, 2018. Reading from the very first paragraph:

“…there were 3 million U.S. citizens of voting age living abroad in 2016 who cast approximately 208,000 ballots. The overseas voter turnout of approximately 7 percent compares to a domestic turnout of 72 percent.”

So, like…you know…maybe we can reach the other 2.8 million voters if we just try a little harder.

And, finally, big thanks to Ron Steenblik, who can be found on Twitter @RonSteenblik. There’s a link to his Twitter account in the show notes, and he is currently my favorite expat listener.  And yes, this IS a contest for my affection, so give it your best shot.

A climate forum is actually happening

Next up today, remember that whole climate change debate kerfuffle? And how the DNC suggested that a debate maybe wasn’t the best format per se, but maybe, you know, like a town hall or a candidate forum kind of like the one Planned Parenthood did?

Well, good news, a candidate forum on climate change has just picked up some major media attention. It will be held September 19th and 20th—that’s a Thursday and Friday—and is cosponsored by MSNBC, Georgetown Politics, and Our Daily Planet.

The event, called Climate Forum 2020, will be moderated by MSNBC’s anchors Chris Hayes and Ali Velshi. It’s billed as, “a conversation between presidential candidates and young voters on the issue of climate change.”

So here’s the thing—this event was actually announced back in June, but yesterday it picked up a TON of steam when MSNBC came onboard. The event will happen at Georgetown University, and it will be streamed live on NBC News Now, and will also air on both nights on MSNBC’s show All In with Chris Hayes, which airs at 8pm Eastern.

Now, here’s another interesting angle—this forum is NOT a Democrats-only affair. According to the Georgetown press release:

“All declared 2020 presidential candidates from both political parties have been invited to participate in the town-hall style forum at Georgetown University.”

So, this is a very positive development, and it will be fascinating to see what this event looks like, coming precisely one week after the DNC’s September debates. In other words, it’s very likely that lower-polling candidates won’t make the debates, but will stick around in the race precisely for events like this.

Oh, and I just saw that CNN is also hosting a climate-focused forum on September 4th in New York. More details on that when I have them.

What happens if you donate too much to a campaign

Okay, now another listener question. Again, this one came in through a private channel so I’m not going to mention the questioner’s name, but here is the question:

“I have a campaign contribution question: I know the max contribution for the primary for each candidate is $2800 [dollars] and a Google search told me that if you buy any t-shirts or swag, that counts towards the $2800 [dollars], but are there are any exceptions to that? My t-shirt purchase is not in my ActBlue contribution history for a candidate and at one point, I got a fundraising email asking if I could max out with a contribution of [$x dollars] but that [number] assumed the t-shirt was not included so I am confused. Also, what happens if you accidentally give over the limit? Are the campaigns keeping track and returning excess?”

Okay, so there are a few questions here. First up, let’s address the $2800 dollar thing, just so everybody is clear. According to federal law, each individual may donate up to $2800 dollars to each candidate in each ELECTION. So what that means in practice for the race right now is that you can give $2800 dollars to a primary candidate, because the primary is its own election, and then if that candidate makes it into the general election, you can give ANOTHER $2800 dollars to the same candidate again, but this time it’s for the general election. One election equals one contribution limit.

And by the way, some people are going ahead and pre-giving both amounts right now, but this creates some challenges for the bookkeepers, so in some cases those general election donations are simply being returned by the campaigns.

Okay, so the first question is basically, are there exceptions to that overall $2,800 dollar limit? Like, is a tee-shirt the same as a cash contribution? Well, short answer, merchandise is treated exactly the same as a cash donation IF you buy the merch from the actual campaign. There are a lot of bootlegs out there, so in some cases I’ve seen people buy stuff off of online ads that is not actually official campaign merchandise, and therefore technically is not counted. But if you bought the thing from the campaign’s actual website, or in person, it SHOULD be counted, and it probably eventually WILL be counted, it’s mainly a matter of bookkeeping, because the merch people don’t necessarily talk to the donations people, or at least they don’t do it QUICKLY.

Another question there is, are there any ways around this… to be honest, no, campaign finance law is super-real and you don’t want to go messing around. But a HUGE thing you can do is volunteer. That, technically, doesn’t have anything to do with financial contributions, even though it does have massive value to the campaign. So for those who are super fired-up about a given candidate, volunteering even at the most minimal level—like hosting a party or something—is another way to essentially help the campaign, but, you know, not break the law. Now, technically you could also give to a PAC, but a) you can’t be sure that money will go to a particular candidate (which is kind of the point), and b) many candidates are not accepting PAC money anyway.

And the last part there was about what happens if you accidentally give too much? This is something that does happen a lot, because lots of small contribution do eventually add up. And the FEC has detailed rules about that. I can sum it up by saying one of two things will happen, and legally they’re supposed to happen within 60 days of the over-limit contribution arriving at the campaign. Note that this 60-day window thing might also account for why a recent contribution or a tee-shirt purchase or whatever might not yet be on the books for you.

So, first, the campaign can return the contribution via cash or check. That is accompanied by a notice in writing to you as the contributor. This is the common route, and it happens all the time.

Second, the campaign MAY, under certain circumstances, keep the money and re-designate it for the general election. Now, just like I mentioned before, if they don’t make it to the general election, they do have to refund that money later, but this is a totally legit thing to do, assuming you follow the FEC’s guidelines for it. And depending on whether your preferred candidate is holding on to these general election donations, this is a super-practical way to keep people giving, and handle the bookkeeping on the back end. Now, by the way, they are also supposed to notify you if and when this happens.

So, I hope that answers the question, and, please do not violate campaign finance law because that’s bad, but if you do go over by one tee-shirt’s worth of money, you’re just gonna get a check in the mail and that will cost the campaign some amount of time and money, but, not a huge deal.

Debate Bingo is here

Last up today, Debate Bingo is here for July!

Just like in June, I have made Bingo cards for each night of the July debates. There is a link in the show notes to go download those—that’s the TOP LINK in the notes—and they are PDFs with ten randomized cards per night. In case you’re not a big Show Notes person, the place to go is just

So the cards, if you didn’t see them in June, have a lineup from left-to-right with photos and names of all the candidates in their proper order. There are also, you know, Bingo squares with various things they might say or do. You mark a square when a thing happens, and maybe you’ll win some kind of nonexistent prize.

If you play along at home, and you’re somebody who does the whole Twitter thing, try out the hashtag #ERHbingo, that’s also printed on the bottom of the cards, so we can check out how everybody is doing.


Well, that is it for one more episode of the Election Ride Home. I have been your host, Chris Higgins. You can always find me on Twitter @chrishiggins. Oof, long week for me, coming off of travel and being very thankful to be back in my own bed with my own yarden. Oh, big news on that front, the first Stargazer lily of the season just bloomed yesterday. Of course, it promptly fell over, because I planted the bulb like one inch deep, but still, I guess, progress. There’s also a giant, probably six-year-old lily tree of the same variety just about to burst, and I’m gonna spend some quality time taking photos of those. If you’re curious, you can check me out on Instagram @instablah. I apologize for the username, I just couldn’t think of anything better. As always, thanks for listening, and I will talk to y’all on MONDAY.