In poll position

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 January, 2008, 12:00am

A table in the corner is piled with free fliers and posters - 'Hillary for president', 'Edwards 08' and 'Vote Obama' - but no one needs more than one. The Democrats gathered at a local law office support one candidate or another, but there aren't many people in Hong Kong to give the extras to.

Campaigning in presidential elections in the US is an often raucous business involving fiery speeches, colourful banners and brass bands, but it's a far quieter affair for the 6 million Americans living overseas. This meeting of Democrats Abroad is an exception. Ahead of the vote in November to elect the 44th US president, a key topic among the 30 participants is getting citizens to register to vote - not an easy task for overseas political activists.

'I have thousands of people in my neighbourhood,' says one member. 'Maybe a few are Americans but I don't know which ones or which doors they're behind.'

It's primary season in the US, when voters in each state select delegates to the national conventions of the major political parties (the Democrats hold theirs in Denver, Colorado, in August, and the Republicans in St Paul, Minnesota, in September). And since candidates must win the support of a majority of delegates to become the party's nominee for president, this is a crucial hurdle in the race to the White House.

Although Republicans Abroad has no vote in the primaries, the local chapter helps supporters living in Hong Kong to register for votes in their home states.

But Democrats overseas tend to be more active because they have a bigger say in the choice of candidate. Some 60 international chapters of Democrats Abroad will send 22 delegates to their national convention. So election fever is heating up in Hong Kong, too, as US Democrats here prepare to choose their delegates in primaries being held on February 5, 10 and 12.

The local chairman, Glenn Berkey, says he's out to register any American voter he can. 'I don't care if they're Democrat or Republican. What's important is that they participate.'

In past years, Democrats Abroad has set up registration tables near the Mid-Levels escalator and the Discovery Bay pier, where there is heavy expatriate traffic. But it's a haphazard process and the group has to rely on networking to reach out to potential voters, says Berkey.

The group does not support any candidate during the nominating process, but some people have made their choices.

Erin Keogh, who lives in Beijing with her husband and children, organised a conference call last July between Barack Obama and US voters in Shanghai and the Chinese capital.

A former student of the candidate when he taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago, Keogh says experience abroad spurred her activism.

'A lot of Americans have become extremely cynical about the political process and think they don't have a voice,' she says. 'Living in China has really made me think about how lucky we are.'

Hong Kong-based art auctioneer Jehan Chu Pei-chung learned about the conference call and in November helped Keogh organise another with Obama's wife, Michelle, in which local Americans took part.

Like Keogh, Chu cites living abroad as a catalyst for becoming politically active. 'Global perspective is very valuable,' he says. 'Living in a place where I'm a foreigner has a great impact.'

For another Obama supporter, Lee Shu Nung, the activism is a natural extension of his work as an economist. 'But my stumping is more one on one. That works better for the people I know,' he says. 'You're not going to see me standing next to the guys handing out credit card leaflets.'

The canvassing can lead to some lively after-dinner debates. Trawling for supporters at a Thanksgiving party, Chu found himself in a spirited argument with fellow guest Debra Mao, a supporter of Hillary Clinton.

'It's surprising how much attention the primaries are getting here,' says Mao, a television news producer.

'I thought they would start tuning in around October, but people are already watching with interest.'

Most attribute the attention to closely contested fights for the nomination in both the Republican and Democratic parties. And as overseas voters, their ballots could tip the scales.

'In a key swing state such as Florida, where the vote is often very close, [overseas voters] can be very important,' says Susan MacManus, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida.

Republican votes from abroad could be decisive because even small margins can make a difference in the party's winner-takes-all state primaries, says Steven Hill of the New America Foundation, a think-tank.

'In the Republican primary, the overseas vote could actually have a bigger impact,' Hill says. 'That vote could be the tipping vote that decides a close race.'

Yet the spotty record of ballots cast abroad worries some Democrats. Until recently, the only option available to overseas voters was to mail absentee ballot request forms back to the US and hope the ballots arrived in time. In the 2006 congressional election, 992,034 ballots were requested from overseas. Of those, only 330,000 were counted, with 70 per cent of those not counted returned to elections officials as undeliverable.

But starting this year, Democrats overseas can vote in primaries either online at from February 5 to 12, or in person at centres set up in 36 cities, including Hong Kong.

'We have a chance to make our voice heard as a group,' says David O'Rear, a local member of Democrats Abroad. 'This is important because we're looking at a very tight race for the nomination.'

O'Rear, an economist, says the option of voting with Democrats Abroad means members can decide where their ballot will have greater impact. His overseas vote for Clinton, for instance, will carry much more weight than it would if it was cast in his home state of California.

O'Rear hopes the votes of the 100,000 people who have downloaded voter registration forms from the Democrats Abroad website will prove decisive. 'That's a tremendous number for any jurisdiction in the States,' he says.

'One-fiftieth of that could swing an election.'

Although not as active as in previous years, Republicans Abroad will step up its activities in the months before the election, with televised debates between its members and Democrats Abroad.

'In August we'll have 35 people in the meeting. In September it'll go up to 50. And when we hold debates we'll have 100 people there,' says Mark Simon, a former chairman of Republicans Abroad in Hong Kong.

Republicans aren't bothered they have no say in the primaries, he says.

'Democrats fall in love; Republicans fall in line. [The Democrats] have delegates at stake, so it means something to them.'

Simon, an advertising director at a media company, says Chinese-language newspapers and broadcasters will extend coverage of the US presidential race to the activities of Republicans and Democrats in Hong Kong.

'American democracy is going to be at the forefront in Hong Kong on all the media channels in a big, big way.'