American voters living in Japan are counting down the days as one of the most-watched presidential elections in U.S. history hurtles toward a potentially nail-biting conclusion — one that could have profound effects for Washington’s ties with Tokyo.
With the Nov. 8 election just weeks away, and as deadlines for requesting absentee ballots fast approach, outreach groups are frantically hustling to get voters here to register for the election.
Most polls show Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton maintaining a thin lead over Republican candidate Donald Trump. But, with at least 2.6 million eligible U.S. voters living abroad according to one estimate, the group is large enough to tip elections in close presidential and state contests.
With 50,000-plus U.S. nationals and approximately 54,000 military personnel, 42,000 of their dependents and 800 civil-service employees residing here, Japan hosts a none-too-small chunk of those voters.
“As we have seen in recent years, every vote counts in U.S. elections,” said Joshua Dupuy, an American-British lawyer who teaches global politics at Temple University Japan in Tokyo. Dupuy cited the 2000 presidential election in which Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the election after the disputed count in Florida gave his Republican rival, George W. Bush, 271 electoral votes, one more than the required 270 needed to win the Electoral College. “At this point in Japan, and elsewhere, get-out-the-vote efforts are critical,” he said.
But apathy among U.S. nationals living abroad presents a formidable hurdle to these efforts.
According to a study released earlier this year by Oxford University’s Rothermere American Institute, a mere 12 percent of potential overseas voters submitted ballots in 2012. That figure, which assumed there was a population of 5 million eligible civilian overseas voters, was lower than the rate for the traditionally least engaged demographic in the U.S. — young voters.
But because “only a small percentage actually registered to vote, getting U.S. citizens living overseas registered to vote and helping them request the absentee ballots they need to vote can definitely play a role in the outcomes of many of the 2016 races,” said Denise Treuting, Japan secretary for Democrats Abroad, an official affiliate of the U.S. Democratic Party established in the 1960s that is recognized as the equivalent of a state in primary contests.
Still, it is likely to be a race against time for Treuting’s organization, as well as Republicans Overseas, a similar group that does not have an operation in Japan. Deadlines for requesting ballots, mainly between mid-October and November in most states, are looming large. In an effort to get more Americans in Japan signed up to vote, Democrats Abroad has held registration events and operates a phone bank system to remind U.S. citizens to request their absentee ballots.
While the raucous presidential election campaign could draw more voters than the 2012 election, a July Gallup poll shows that 1 in 4 Americans have an unfavorable opinion of both Trump and Clinton, more than double the rate for the candidates four years ago and about four times higher than in 2008.
Potentially low turnout this year in Japan, however, could be mitigated by the stances held by Clinton and, more controversially, Trump, on Washington’s ties with Tokyo. Trump has repeatedly blasted U.S. defense tie-ups with key allies, including Japan, as unfair. The Republican nominee has said that as president, he would not maintain U.S. military bases in Japan unless the host country coughed up more money to retain them. He has also said he would be open to Japan having its own nuclear weapons. In the two candidates’ first debate last week, Clinton, for her part, attempted to reassure nervous allies here that under her leadership, the U.S. would honor the mutual defense treaty it has with Japan.
Among active-duty U.S. military personnel — who are encouraged by the Department of Defense not to engage in partisan political activity — an unscientific survey by the Military Times in May suggested Trump was the preferred candidate by more than a 2-to-1 margin. However, over 20 percent of those surveyed also said they would rather not vote if they had to choose between just those two candidates.
Agree with them or not, the candidates’ positions are galvanizing voters here.
“I think Japan residents who are Democrats will vote for Hillary no question,” said Brian, a registered Republican living in Fukuoka Prefecture, who gave only his first name. “I think some Republican voters in Japan will not vote for Trump because of some of the things he has said about Japan.” Ultimately, he said, he expects Clinton to win “in a landslide.”
Ron Harris, a onetime registered Republican who splits his time between Arlington, Virginia, and Tokyo’s Minato Ward, will vote for Trump. But he fears “being reviled and smeared for coming out of the closet for some of Trump’s policies, since he appears to be so hated by so many,” he said in an email.
“It is ironic that a so-called racist and sexist candidate has drawn supporters who must fear to weigh the good and the bad of the two major candidates and then speak out for the positive aspects of our choice,” he added.
But regardless of party or preference, the process of requesting a ballot and voting has never been simpler for U.S. citizens here.
“Whatever someone’s experience has been in the past with voting from abroad, 10 years ago, 15 years ago, five years ago, it is just so much easier now,” said Ellen Murry, a volunteer with Democrats Abroad and resident of Yokohama.
“People need to get out and do something that millions of people are denied the opportunity to do — to vote,” Murry added.
Federal Voting Assistance Program: www.fvap.gov. Democrats Abroad’s Vote From Abroad site: www.votefromabroad.org/vote/home.htm. U.S. Tokyo Embassy voter inquiries: japan.usembassy.gov/e/acs/tacs-7124c.html#inquiries. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org