As a dual citizen I have the privilege, and the responsibility, to vote in two countries. This hasn’t always been the case however — I lived in the US for well over a decade as a non-citizen, unable to vote. It was a great feeling when I was allowed to cast my first ballot back in 2008. I was happy, and relieved, to finally be able to be a fully engaged participant in the society in which I had lived for so long. Exercising my civic responsibility is important in my home country of Sweden as well, and even though I’ve been living abroad for most of my adult life I have managed to vote in general elections — either by mail, or as I did this year, by going to my local consulate general. I have learned along the way that living abroad requires foresight and planning if I want my vote to count. And staying truly involved isn’t always easy from afar.
I read recently that only 12% of the estimated 9 million Americans abroad vote in presidential elections (even fewer in midterm elections). That’s a lot of missing votes. But, I think I understand how it can happen. Leading up to this month’s Swedish election, I found it wasn’t all that easy, in spite of my best intentions, to keep myself informed and well versed on current events and political issues. Everyday life is busy and staying current where I reside is sometimes hard enough, doing the same in a country I haven’t lived in for over 20 years can feel near impossible.
The longer I live abroad, the more distant I feel from issues back home. In spite of information being easily and abundantly available. It’s challenging to stay on top of current events in general, and gaining a deeper understanding of political parties and the people that lead them seems particularly difficult. It’s not for lack of trying, I read newspapers daily, and I talk to family and friends back home about what’s going on and yet, I feel removed. All the while, exercising that civic responsibility — staying engaged and voting — appears more urgent than ever, in Sweden as well as here in the US.
I think part of the problem is that when you are away for longer periods of time structural changes begin to take place in society and its institutions. People I associate with certain ideas are long gone, parties that used to be on the fringe and not taken at all seriously by the majority of voters have become part of everyday politics. Party alliances that I remember as a given are no longer there. New parties have formed. Society, and politics, have changed and I haven’t been able to keep up in an intimate enough way.
I believe this is what happens to many expats. We get busy with what’s in our immediate surroundings while life back home becomes more peripheral. Couple that with the fact that voting while living abroad takes planning and you can see why participation rates are low.
I haven’t been able to find numbers on election participation of Swedes living abroad. I do know however that this year’s election was an extremely close one, and as the votes from abroad are some of the last to be counted, they were being reported as having the power to swing the election from one block to the other — that’s quite something, and quite something to keep in mind for future elections — in Sweden, in the US and elsewhere in the world. Having the right to vote is indeed a privilege, as well as a responsibility!
By: Felicia Shermis