American expats terrified as 40-day march to vote begins

Danielle Miklos, chairperson of Rome's Democrats Abroad chapter, helps an American expat fill out an emergency mail-in ballot Tuesday.
Danielle Miklos, chairperson of Rome’s Democrats Abroad chapter, helps an American expat fill out an emergency mail-in ballot Tuesday. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We American expats overseas don’t get our voices heard very often beyond family and friends back home. Our opinions get filtered by the roar of separating oceans and the relative anonymity of social media. But with the most important presidential election in, at least, my 64 years only 40 days away, our voices should be made loud and clear.

There are 9 million of us. 

As a state, according to the State Department, we’d be the 11th largest, just behind Michigan and ahead of New Jersey. Those two states have 16 and 14 Electoral College votes, respectively. Instead, our votes will be scattered to our various states. Some are battleground. 

We all have a common bond. It goes beyond struggles with a foreign language, visa delays and occasional loneliness. We share something else, something worse than maneuvering the back channels of foreign bureaucracies and figuring out the right change in markets.

Danielle Miklos is the chairperson of Rome’s Democrats Abroad organization. She spends all her days talking to expats in my beloved adopted city and sees one trait running through everyone.

“They’re absolutely terrified,” she said. “Terrified and sad, because of the America that many of us grew up in no longer exists.”

The Democrats Abroad Rome chapter is having three events a week, including Tuesday's.
The Democrats Abroad Rome chapter is having three events a week, including Tuesday’s. Photo by Marina Pascucci

I caught up with Danielle Tuesday night at a Dems Abroad event at Rec23, my old favorite cocktail lounge in Rome’s Testaccio neighborhood. Two years ago I came to Testaccio to celebrate our Democratic Party’s midterm victories. In Ancient Rome, Testaccio was the port area where they collected huge terracotta vases carrying wine, olive oil and grain then broke the vases into pieces and threw them on a pile. Today that pile still exists in the form of nearby Mount Testaccio. I compared breaking up the vases with the Trump Administration’s breaking up American democracy.

Two years later, American democracy has been ground into gruel that Fuckface von Clownstick’s functionally illiterate, random-toothed cult feeds on every day.

I’m terrified, too. 

My view of the election has gone from optimism (big early lead for Joe Biden in the polls), to pessimism (Republican Convention always builds momentum) to optimism (the Cowardly Lyin’ received no discernible bump after convention) to pessimism (liberal friends in the West tell me they think Hair Hitler will win) to optimism (polls show he’s lost the suburban housewives and some rural whites are turning on him) to sheer terror (blatantly hypocritical Republicans will ramrod some Stepford wife with a law degree into the vacant Supreme Court seat, arguably a bigger appointment than the next president).

I voted Monday using Colorado's e-ballot. Isn't this a beautiful photo?
I voted Monday using Colorado’s e-ballot. Isn’t this a beautiful photo?

I voted Monday. I’m lucky. I vote in Colorado, one of 23 states that provides e-ballots. I don’t have to worry about PosteItaliane’s utter incompetence and the U.S. Postal Service’s new-found corruption, with strings pulled by the Cheeto-faced marionette master.

However, not everyone is so lucky. At Rec23, Dems Abroad helped about a dozen people furiously filling out Federal Write-in Absentee Ballots, cumbersome emergency ballots for people who never received their write-in ballots in the mail.

“Voting from abroad has never been very easy,” Danielle said. “We have a large contingency here from New York, and New York is one of 20 states that are mail-in states. We need to mail in our ballot and it’s rather cumbersome along with the other 19 states.”

Danielle Miklos told me she worked out a discount with DHL.
Danielle Miklos told me she worked out a discount with DHL and Federal Express. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Danielle is from New York City. So is another woman who attended the meeting. Louise Vinciguerra, a dual Italian-American citizen, is from Brooklyn and has lived in Rome for 20 years. She has experience with communications and attended to volunteer during this stretch run. Like all of us, she has incentive.

“I’m scared,” said Louise, a content manager in Rome. “That’s actually why I volunteered to help out because I feel voter turnout is important. Also, I get the feeling that everybody’s really angry but nobody’s doing anything about it. There’s a laziness about voting.”

According to the Federal Voting Assistance Program, only 6.9 percent of eligible American expats voted in 2016. The percentage was even lower in the 2018 midterms.

Here’s why: It’s hard. It’s confusing. It’s frustrating. It took me three hours to vote online. The online form required me to attach a digital signature to the form. However, it doesn’t have an attachment tab. I called my Denver County Elections Division to ask how I do it. It placed me on hold and said I was next in line.

I was on hold an hour later.

I hung up, muttered every Romanaccio profanity I knew and called Julia Bryan, Democrats Abroad’s international chairperson, in Prague. She walked me through it. I sent in my ballot and Denver County quickly confirmed everything was in order. 

(I must say, the check I placed next to Joe Biden’s and Kamala Harris’ names is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever written.)

Dems Abroad ( is here to help.

This Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot is cumbersome but counts.
This Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot is cumbersome but counts. Photo by Marina Pascucci

“People are coming to us especially from electronic states,” Danielle said. “Most aren’t realizing they already have their ballot. If you have access to email, do a search for ‘Ballots’ and see what comes up. Someone from Oregon Saturday found that in August they sent him his ballot. He doesn’t even remember requesting it.”

Bryan says the Twitter Terrorist’s presidency has pushed expat voting numbers “270 percent over 2016.” She said half the expats vote in swing states and in the midterms Dems Abroad sent 100,000 votes to Florida. She sees possible effects in North Carolina and Wisconsin as well.

“We had massive support,” she said. “If we can double those, we’ll more than cover the margin.”

American expats’ party breakdown

The 9 million voters is a united force, too. Bryan said 81 percent of the voters are Democrats. The percent of Republicans? Two. I’m not surprised. Most supporters of the New York Pork Dork think Rome is in Georgia. Great Waffle House there, too.

 The problem is so many of those 9 million don’t vote. Not only is it a hassle (see above), but many feed into the cliche of “my vote doesn’t count.” To vote from overseas, one must be committed. Take time. Have patience. Do research. A liberal friend here from California doesn’t vote because Democrats always win California. Why bother? I know another Democrat here from Arkansas who doesn’t vote because Democrats only win Arkansas when the candidate is an Arkansan. For a long time, I couldn’t blame them.

However, here is why everyone must vote: The popular vote, unlike every other civilized country in the world, isn’t used. But it will make a point — just as it did in 2016.

“This is another precedent we can set,” Louise said. “If there are two elections where we win the popular vote then maybe change will happen. Change won’t happen by sitting back and watching other people.”

Pandemic affects voting overseas

The global pandemic has made voting overseas even harder. Much of Dems Abroad’s job is getting word to Americans on how to vote. The campaign starts in January with the Women’s March. This year, due to so few Americans around, they registered about only 10 people.

In February they start an intense spring schedule at various American universities around Rome. With Italy’s lockdown, however, all the meetings were cancelled. In the summer, there were about as many Americans in Rome as Martians. 

Danielle said Dems Abroad “hit the ground running” in September and is playing catch up. Dems Abroad in Rome is doing three events a week. They’re doing events online. They’re creating videos. They’re constantly calling potential voters.

But voting options are limited. The normal process is sending all the ballots to the U.S. Embassy in Rome but she learned many midterm votes weren’t mailed to the U.S. on time or not sent at all as the embassy didn’t have the proper log-in mechanism to expedite the mailing.

If anyone still must fill out a mail-in ballot, they are out of luck. In July I sent a postcard that didn’t reach the U.S. for seven weeks. Forget a mail-in ballot when the USPS is destroying sorting machines.

Dems Abroad worked out discounts with DHL and FedEx to courier mail-in ballots (See “If you need help” below), but even that may not help.

“There are some states that don’t accept private courier services if the address is to a P.O. box,” she said. “I’ve learned some of the key states have P.O. boxes at the addresses. That will cause another complication.”

I’m lucky to live in Europe

The whole picture makes me nervous. I shouldn’t be. It could be worse. In Rome I’m shielded from Faux News and I’m never harassed for wearing a mask just to take out my trash. Italy’s Covid curve has spiked. But a spike here means 1,585 new cases and 16 deaths a day over the last week. In the U.S. it has been 41,293 and 894. I don’t risk death every time I go out for a glass of wine.

When I get fidgety or irritated, when anger is splashed all over my face, visible even through my mask, my girlfriend Marina brings me back to reality.

“John, you don’t live in the United States,” she says. “Italy is your country now.”

She’s right. I am extremely grateful to not live in a country circling the drain of world respect. 

“It’s not so much in my face,” Danielle said. “I go on social media and see some of the comments. A stepbrother of mine says some of the most outrageous, upsetting things and I’m glad I’m reading them as opposed to hearing them first hand. I’m certainly grateful I’m insulated in that way.”

However selfish I try to make myself, to be thankful I live in a country that met the Covid crisis with transparency and brute force, I still feel for the homeland I left behind. My family is healthy, financially and physically. But watching videos of Americans getting evicted, of police murdering unarmed Blacks in the streets, of thousand of mask-less drones salivating at the worst human being who ever served in the White House, I can’t help but be intensely glued to this election, however far away I am.

Summarized Bryan, the head of Europe’s Dems Abroad and who has lived in Prague for 21 years: “We’re fighting for our families, our friends, the future of the country that we’re from.”

If you need help …

All you Americans overseas who haven’t voted, vote. Now. Even if we lose the election, winning the popular vote for the second straight time will make a point. If you need help, write, or At this late date, no one in Italy should mail in their ballot through regular mail. It won’t arrive on time if at all. Democrats Abroad’s Rome chapter has arranged a discount with DHL. Check one of three DHL offices in Rome for prices. They are on Via della Colonna Antonina 53 near the Pantheon, Via Venti Settembre 23 north of Termini station and Via Faenza 14 in San Giovanni. Use the code USA2020 but states with P.O. boxes will not accept courier mailings. DemsAbroad also has an offer from FedEx of 25 euros for overnight delivery of an envelope no more than 500 grams. You must open a FedEx account with a credit card. For advice and emergency ballots, Dems Abroad has three weekly events: Tuesdays at Rec 23 in Testaccio from 7-10 p.m., Thursdays at Piccadilly restaurant in San Giovanni from 6-9 p.m. and Saturdays at Bar Lavi in Prati from 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Dems Abroad also has other online options to assist voters:

— John Henderson