US elections important for overseas voters in Vietnam

By Michael Smith, Thanh Nien News

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With the US election fast approaching on November 4, the US Consulate and Americans in Ho Chi Minh City are encouraging thousands of their compatriots in Vietnam to vote.
“It’s hard for us to work out, but to the best of our knowledge there’s about 20,000 [US citizens in Vietnam] at any given moment. It’s a ball park figure,” Chief of the US Consular Section Chuck Bennett said in his office at the consulate in HCMC.
He added that presumably most of them were eligible voters but there was no way of knowing how many people actually voted here.
Consul Chief of US Citizen Services Martin L. Oppus has been working closely with US citizens concerning the election.
“There’s definitely been a lot of interest in the election,” Oppus said. “Our main role is to facilitate their voting in their respective states. Mainly at this stage we are moving registration forms back to the states.”
Voting and registering to vote is done mainly by mail as the embassy and consulate don’t provide polling booths for voters here. Some states allow registration online, by email or by fax.
Oppus and Bennett encouraged voters to send their registration and absentee ballot requests and ballots through the Consulate’s diplomatic bag.
Oppus said they had been sending out letters to the 1,000 or so US citizens who had registered with the consulate as being in Vietnam.
“Seventy-five-80 percent of US citizens in Vietnam live down here in the HCMC area,” he said.
There are three main deadlines in each state for voters to be mindful of: registration, ballot request and ballot return.
The deadlines and procedures vary state by state and Bennett said it is important for overseas citizens to check their own states’ requirements. For instance, according to the 2008 Voting Assistance Guide, registration in Puerto Rico already closed on September 4 but registration in North Carolina won’t close until November 3.
Oppus said the information is very specific for each voter depending where exactly their last place of residence in the US was. There’s not even a single mailing address per state, all letters must be sent to the auditor in individual counties.
“There’s been a stream throughout history of states’ independence in these things,” Bennett said, adding that it can be frustrating.
The Republicans Abroad and Democrats Abroad are two other organizations active in encouraging absentee voting here.
Sesto Vecchi, managing lawyer at law firm Russin and Vecchi, is the chair of Republicans Abroad Vietnam. He said the political group took off in Vietnam in the 1996 election.
The Vietnam veteran from the US, who has lived here since 1993, said the mailing list of Republicans Abroad in the country was 150 strong – a group of “hardcore” politically minded people who “always had and always will vote Republican.”
The question they face is how to reach out to other Republican voters every four years to get them to register for the election, he said.
He said the Republican voters here are a “pretty amorphous group” with many, particularly government workers, not wanting their name associated with any political group. It’s almost a “phobia” for some of them, he said.
Democrats Abroad Vietnam HCMC Chapter Chair Tim Crowley said, “What is interesting this time around is Obama’s very strong interest in the overseas vote. Since August, we’ve had a guy in Jakarta with the Obama campaign whose portfolio is the Southeast Asian countries.”
Crowley, who has been in HCMC since July 2007 and works for a global enterprise software company, said Obama is paying more attention to overseas voters as a part of his overall strategy.
The Democrat presidential candidate is using the Democrats National Committee Chair Howard Dean’s “50 State Strategy” to motivate Democrats to vote, Crowley said.
“It is a part of Obama’s strong sense to make people feel they are a part of the campaign,” said the chapter chair.
He said Democrats Abroad Vietnam is holding events and advertising in a Vietnamese newspaper every Monday in a bipartisan way to push people towards the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) to get them to vote.
Both Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad Vietnam said they had no accurate figures on the number of US citizens here or how many voted.
Vecchi said that on the Republican side, “There’s probably not a lot of attention given to overseas voters.”
Of the 6,000,000 US citizens living overseas, Vecchi said, Republican Abroad trackers estimated 65 percent of them voted Republican. It is a bit skewed, he said, because the figure includes members of the military who were more likely to be Republican voters.
“McCain has a strong connection to Vietnam,” said Vecchi. “At least he’ll be a president who is fairly well informed on Vietnam. His wife was here a few weeks ago doing some charity work.”
According to Crowley, the figures on voting in Vietnam don’t exist. “It is hard to keep track of numbers here because people vote in their state and states don’t keep track of where the votes are from.”
The Democrats group is doing most of their work by “capturing the stream,” ensuring that their members vote, he said.
“There’s a fair amount from the big states of California and New York, including the key battleground states of Ohio, Florida, Colorado, Virginia and Iowa,” said Crowly.
He said Democrats Abroad Vietnam had a policy not to reveal their membership numbers but said that membership had doubled since they became an official part of the Democratic Party in April.
Democrats Abroad Country Chair Thinh Nguyen said the group started informally in the 2004 general election.
He said he wanted people to apply for their absentee ballot now.
“I think he [Obama] is going to win. There is a real desire for change and he’s doing that, while McCain’s just doing more of the same,” Crowley said.
Vecchi said McCain would be good as he was “his own man on many issues, supportive of decisions his own party doesn’t support.”
Vecchi stated that one of his group’s achievements was that three of the votes in the crucial final count in Florida that decided the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore were from Vietnam.
He added that Republican lobbyists in Vietnam were making more contributions in this election than at the last election, but he couldn’t give figures.
“There’s a limit of US$2,300 on donations to candidates but no limit on donations for issues, which are usually party specific such as immigration and capital gains tax,” he said.
Democrats Abroad said overseas voters could send in their ballots for free by using FedEx and DHL logistics services as well as the consulate’s diplomatic bag.
Ballots can be sent in as soon as they are received from the different states, which will be in the next week or two. The consulate encouraged people to vote early.
Bennett said, “Every vote counts the same and every vote is important so every vote from Vietnam is important.”

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