America's Overseas Voters: How they could decide the US Presidency in 2016

Professor Jay Sexton, Director of the Rothermere American Institute, University of Oxford

Dr Patrick Andelic, Research Associate, Rothermere American Institute, University of Oxford


Even before voting began in the 2016 Democrat and Republican primaries, they had produced drama and surprises. The rise of anti-establishment candidates such as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders has overturned preconceptions of what is politically feasible in the US, and set the scene for a tight contest in both parties, where every vote will count. This short report considers the critical importance of American citizens living outside the US – an estimated 6 million people – in influencing the outcomes of elections in the US.

Democrats Abroad is recognised as a ‘state’ for primary voting purposes and will send a similar number of delegates to the Democrat National Convention as Wyoming or Alaska. In a race as tight as the current Clinton–Sanders contest, the expat vote could prove to be decisive.

The UK has the largest US expat population outside North America. Registered Democrats will be able to vote at several polling stations around Britain – including one at the Rothermere American Institute (RAI) in Oxford on Super Tuesday (March 1). Overseas Republican organisations do not provide the same formal mechanism for expats to send delegates to the party convention that determines the presidential candidate, but also have been active during the primaries and encourage their members to vote in their home state primaries through absentee ballots. 

The report also considers the Democrat and Republican parties’ relationships with the US expatriate community and what this tells us about the state of each organisation within the US.

Political Impact of Expat Voters

Expatriate voters have played a decisive role in elections in the past. The most dramatic came in the 2000 presidential election, when overseas ballots put George W. Bush narrowly in the lead when the Florida recount was stopped by the Supreme Court. Had the election been decided based on the ballots that had arrived by the 26 November deadline, Al Gore would have won the state of Florida, and the presidential election, by 202 votes.

There are other instances of expatriates playing a decisive role: for instance, in Jim Webb’s victorious Senate campaign in 2006, which delivered control of the Senate to the Democratic Party. Expatriate voters also contribute substantial amounts of money to presidential candidates. In the 2008 cycle, for instance, overseas voters contributed around $6 million to presidential campaigns. The Obama campaign proved the most successful at tapping that donor base, taking some $5 million. Fundraising for 2016 is well underway. Democratic National Committee Chairman Governor Howard Dean will be in London for a breakfast on 23 February to raise funds to help get out the expat vote.

The UK is the most popular destination outside North America for American expatriates. The US State Department estimates that around 224,000 Americans live in Britain, and the figure may be even higher. Turnout rates for expat voting have been lower than among the domestic population in past elections. The parties are therefore taking steps to mobilize this important, though usually forgotten, voting group.

Party Comparisons

The two parties structure overseas voting during presidential primaries in different ways. The Democrats are better organized and institutionalized. The Republicans are taking steps to catch up, but will it be too little too late?

Democrats Abroad was founded in 1964 and has been formally recognised by the Democratic National Committee as the equivalent of a ‘state’ (for primary voting purposes) since 1976. This gives Democrats abroad the right to participate in choosing the party’s presidential nominee and to send delegates to the national convention. By contrast, Republicans Overseas has no formal institutional relationship to the national Republican Party. It has technically only existed since 2013, although its predecessor organisation, Republicans Abroad, was founded in 1978.

Instead of a primary or caucus, members of Republicans Overseas were offered the opportunity to register their support for a particular candidate in an online straw poll (#ROStrawPoll). The results of that poll – comprising voters from 67 countries – were released on January 27. Marco Rubio led among UK-based American voters (27.07%), with Donald Trump in second place (19.55%) and Rand Paul in third (15.04%). With Rubio at around 2.5 times his national average at the time, and Trump substantially behind his, this suggests a more moderate Republican electorate in the UK than in the US.

Both Democrats Abroad and the organisations representing Republican voters living overseas are ambitious, and determined to find new and creative ways to represent party members and the wider expatriate community. However, the current integration of DA into the national party structures gives that organisation advantages over its Republican counterparts, not least in the enthusiasm it can generate and the voting opportunities it gives to its members. To address this gap, Stacy Hilliard, former Vice-Chair of Republicans Overseas will announce the creation of a new Political Action Committee (PAC) at the RAI on 1 March at 12.30pm. Though not an organisational outgrowth of Republicans Overseas, this PAC will promote conservative causes.

‘Super Tuesday’ in Oxford

1 March is ‘Super Tuesday’, the most significant single day of presidential primaries in the United States. Up for grabs are 13 states and 1,038 delegates (close to one quarter of the total). The Democratic Party will hold the first day of its ‘Global Presidential Primary’ on this date in polling stations around the world. At stake are 21 delegates (similar in size to the delegations of Wyoming and Alaska) that will help decide the nominee.

A key voting station in the UK will be in Oxford at the Rothermere American Institute (RAI). Polls will be open from 12pm-7pm. As part of the day’s activities, the RAI will host a panel discussion entitled ‘The Mobilization of Voters Overseas’ at 12.30pm. RAI Director Jay Sexton will moderate discussion between Bill Barnard of Democrats Abroad and Stacy Hilliard, former Vice-Chair of Republicans Overseas.

Local / British Connections

Both Democratic candidates have connections to Oxford. Hillary Clinton’s husband, Bill, was a Rhodes Scholar at University College, Oxford, from 1968 to 1970, and their daughter, Chelsea, read International Relations in Oxford in 2003. Bernie Sanders’s elder brother, Larry, has lived in Oxford since 1969. He was a Green Party councillor on Oxfordshire County Council, 2005-2013, and ran as the Green Party’s parliamentary candidate for Oxford West and Abingdon in 2015. Larry Sanders will vote at around midday at the RAI polling station and will be available for media interviews.