In mid-August, the U.S. Democratic Party held its first-ever virtual national convention to choose Joe Biden as its presidential nominee. John Baumlin, national chair of Democrats Abroad Japan, was Asia-Pacific’s sole elected delegate for the event, where he had a chance to observe speeches and conversations across state lines. Baumlin, 31, is a technologist, activist and project manager who is closely tied to U.S. politics. With less than two months to go before Election Day, he is kicking into high gear to ensure that Americans living abroad can vote safely and effectively. In an election year defined by social distancing, global mail delays and threats levied at the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), his work is cut out for him.
1. How long have you been living in Japan? I’ve been living in Japan for about six years now. I moved here shortly after graduating college in 2012, after the recession, when new graduates had a hard time finding work. Moving to Japan really helped me establish myself.
2. Did your upbringing inform your political views? I grew up in Lacey Township, New Jersey, just a few minutes away from the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station. Part of the reason I got involved in politics was growing up right next to that power plant and seeing (former Gov.) Chris Christie refusing to implement new cooling rods, and seeing all the dead fish shore up along the river due to the heat.
3. Since moving to Japan, what are the ways in which you’ve kept up with politics back home? (Listening to) podcasts and reading news articles, pretty much daily. And one of the biggest anchors for me has been talking with people at home, getting to know how they are feeling about the news that they read.
4. How did you get involved with Democrats Abroad (DA)? Three or four years ago, I moved to Tokyo (from Nagoya) and I felt that I wanted to take advantage of the international community that was available. Then in 2016, when the Bernie Sanders campaign was at its strongest, I was looking on Wikipedia at the delegate math for how delegates are assigned. I scrolled down the list of allocated delegates for the state parties, and I saw that Democrats Abroad was an incredibly effective and important part of the Democratic Party.
5. How does DA go about engaging with politically minded Americans living in Japan? Our main focus is to get out the vote. We provide members with tools to help them register to vote, we do voter registration training, we help organize marches and vigils, and we provide a friendly avenue for people to talk about politics.
6. How do the responsibilities of the DA Japan branch differ from DA in other countries? So, there is a (1978 Supreme Court case) ruling that says that foreigners in Japan can’t protest or take part in those kinds of actions in the same way as citizens in Japan would. I think that’s a lot more restrictive than our friends in Canada and France and Germany and other major Western democracies. Also, people will tell you to try and go knock on doors, but obviously we can’t really do that here (for cultural and logistical reasons).
Some things that are better here, though, are that there’s really good public transportation, so it is very easy to meet up in different areas, even if people live far apart. And people in Japan tend to be a bit more technologically advanced, so that’s different from some of the other Country Committees. But we just consider it all friendly competition within DA. In Japan, we’re always taking careful care to make sure that the focus is on American politics, and that we’re obeying the legal precedent for our members.
7. Last week you were a part of the 2020 Democratic National Convention. What was it like to attend such an important event via video conference and what were your main takeaways? This was the first virtual convention that the Democratic Party has ever held, and I felt that it was reflective of our current culture. All of the delegations were hosting their own conference calls and it was very easy to jump into a room with the California delegation, or the Colorado or South Carolina delegation. That allowed for a lot more diverse conversations than you would normally be able to have on the convention floor.
My key takeaway was that the Democratic Party is mostly united in stopping authoritarianism. There are groups that are more progressive, more moderate, but everyone is united on democracy and elections.
8. What’s your opinion on the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris ticket? The Biden campaign is very wide-reaching. They’re very focused on healing and bringing different kinds of people together. After Joe Biden wins, I really look forward to seeing how he’s going to balance all those different priorities in the White House and in his Cabinet. But I think that by casting a large net, we’re going to be able to — as a party, as a country, as a government — have access to some of the best and most diverse opinions.
9. What are some particular things in the Biden-Harris platform that you think will affect people living overseas? There was an agreement between the Biden and Sanders campaigns in the Unity Task Force, and one of the major outcomes of that was the establishment of an environmental justice fund. Climate change is going to affect people all around the world.
10. Why do you think Americans living abroad should stay engaged with U.S. politics and issues? It’s different for everyone. Some people are really passionate about “Medicare for All,” because they have family in the U.S. I am a single male, an only child, and my main focus is on the environment and net neutrality. But all of these issues will start to affect you, no matter where you live in the world.
11. How informed do you stay in Japanese politics? I definitely read The Japan Times, the Asahi Shimbun and a few other major publications.
12. What is the process of voting in U.S. elections from Japan? When it comes to voting in the primaries, Democrats Abroad is on the same level as a state party. We get delegates and we cast our votes just like Colorado or Florida would. When it comes to the general elections, states all have their own rules, but there is a form called the Federal Post Card Application (FPCA), which allows you to fill out a form and send it to your county clerk election office. When they receive that form, they will send you all of the elections that you’re eligible to vote in, 45 days before the election. It’s all very streamlined.
13. This may be a stupid question, but have you heard of any difficulty of Japanese addresses getting in the way of people getting their ballots? I have not heard of that or had that experience. But VotefromAbroad.org is really apt at helping you generate the FPCA form, so you don’t have to worry about state websites or things like that preventing you from entering your actual address.
14. Are you able to vote in state and local elections from abroad, or only in the presidential race? It’s different in every state, depending on how your state identifies you and how you answer the questions on the FPCA form. If you intend to return to the United States, you will usually be given the opportunity to vote in state and local elections. If your return is uncertain, then the state kind of decides what elections you’re allowed to vote in. But you can always vote at the federal level for House, Senate and president.
15. Has the voting process looked different this year because of COVID-19? There have been a lot of mail delays, so something that we’re doing is really urging people to submit their ballots as early as possible. Sometimes, it can take more than a month to get your ballot request over. Another measure we’re taking is encouraging people to fill out their Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot (FWAB), which is an emergency backup for the federal elections just in case some kind of delay happens with the mail.
16. Have the threats of defunding the Postal Service and making mail-in voting more difficult raised anxiety levels of people in Japan who want to vote in the election? Yes. It’s especially daunting because Democrats Abroad has dealt with USPS issues since our founding, like ballots getting lost. I like that the USPS and mail-in ballots are such important issues in the United States right now, and I’m hoping to see a lot of reform to make it easier for people to vote — not just from home, but from abroad as well.
17. Mail-in voting has been a hot-button issue in recent years and there has been a push to limit it. Some call that voter suppression, making it harder for people who can’t get off work and for those living abroad to cast their ballot. Where do you stand on the issue? To suppress mail-in voting is absolutely voter suppression. I mean, not everyone can get to a voting center. Think about people with disabilities, very elderly people who are sick or people who are impoverished. Maybe your car just broke down that day.
I’ve always been a strong advocate for absentee voting, and I think that the more participation we have in our politics, the better our democracy functions.
18. In a time when people are being asked to social distance, you would think people would be pushing for more mail-in voting. Why do you think mail-in voting has been such a key debate this year in particular? When you have such a direct effect on such a large number of people, that really is the biggest motivation for changing laws — and a lot of it comes down to first-time experience. When you have voted successfully for 30 years in a row by driving down to the ballot box, and now you suddenly can’t vote, or you’re scared because you’re high-risk for COVID-19 and you’re figuring out these processes for the first time and realizing how difficult they are, it’s really jarring. I’m really hoping for some good updates to the systems so that it will be easier for people to vote.
19. Why do you think it’s important for Americans living in Japan to vote in this year’s presidential election? That’s a question people best ask themselves. What is important to you will certainly be the most important reason to vote. But there are certain issues that affect everyone, like climate change, net neutrality and, in this particular election, stopping authoritarianism so that you can have the choice to vote in the future. And I think we’ve all experienced some negative effects of the Trump administration’s standing overseas and how people perceive Americans. I would certainly like to see a return to our standing as helpful and friendly, and committed to democracy, compared to the current administration’s handling of things.
20. How can Americans overseas stay engaged with U.S. politics and make sure their voice is heard in between election cycles? In between election cycles, it is incredibly important to get involved in party politics. The elections for the state parties are usually on off years of the federal election every two years, so if you have an idea that you want to elevate then the best way to do that is to volunteer and get involved. And, in return for that, you get a microphone and platform to speak from so you can organize on the issues that you most care about.