By Bruce Einhorn Late in 2003, Brett Rierson, a 38-year-old American living in Hong Kong, was having dinner with some friends when the conversation turned, as it often did -- considering what a dedicated Democrat Rierson is -- to the shortcomings of President George W. Bush. Like most of his friends at the party, Rierson is not a big fan of the President. Unlike them, though, Rierson is a U.S. citizen and so can vote against Bush. The others couldn't do much more than gripe.
That's when Rierson got the idea to do something about their frustration. He and two colleagues set up OverseasVote.com, a Web site designed to make it easy for non-Americans to encourage their U.S. friends living abroad to register to vote and apply for absentee ballots. OverseasVote provides expatriate Americans with the voting information they need over the Internet, and it gives people from other countries a chance to "nudge" American friends about their civic duties to participate in the election, even from overseas.
"TURN THE TIDE." Most Americans who can easily vote from abroad don't, Rierson says. He points to statistics from a federal survey showing that only 37% of overseas citizens voted in the 2000 election, compared to an at-home voting rate of 51%. He's hoping that sites like OverseasVote will help expat Americans improve that poor showing.
Rierson says when the site first launched, it was helping 50 new voters a day. Now, he says, that number is 300. "It's doubling week on week," he claims. And he has bigger ambitions. "I want to get at least 100,000 voters registered," he says. "Just a couple of votes from overseas can really turn the tide," he says. "This election is really about 15% of the voters in 15 states which were decided by less than 5% [in 2000]," he says. "If you're trying to appeal to those people, vitriolic Bush-bashing isn't going to work," Rierson says.
Somebody using OverseasVote would find an already-written e-mail to send to their U.S. friends with the following text:
"I care who wins this year's U.S. Presidential election. As an overseas American, you can vote from anywhere on the planet -- and OverseasVote can help. Even if you've never voted before (or if the last time you voted was for JFK), simply go to www.overseasvote.com, and in less than 10 minutes you'll be registered to vote in 2004.
If you're not American and have been sent this message -- THIS IS NOT A MISTAKE -- please visit the site and encourage overseas Americans to vote, or simply forward this message to an overseas American!"
NONPARTISAN INFORMATION. Since starting OverseasVote in February, Rierson has become an expert in the hurdles to voting that many Americans living abroad have. "From the surface, it looks very complex," he says. For instance, some states require applicants to have their applications notarized, while others are more trusting. Some states want Social Security numbers as identification. Some want state driver's licenses. Some want absentee-ballot applications to go to county offices. Others want them broken out town by town. "Every state has its little vagaries that make it intimidating," says Rierson.
Rierson is especially taken by the plight of adult children of Americans who have never lived in the U.S. and therefore have a hard time registering to vote. "Voting from outside the U.S. is based on residency," he explains. "You have the absolute right to vote from the last residence [in the U.S.] before you moved overseas." What if you were born, say, in the Philippines, as the child of an American soldier who was stationed there back in the days when the U.S. still had two big military bases in the country? "Then the system breaks down," he says.
While OverseasVote makes no secret about its political leanings (its home page shouts "Wake up America! Vote Democrat in 2004!), the information about voting is nonpartisan. And the tone of the e-mail reminders foreigners can send to their American friends is deliberately upbeat and nonpartisan, says Rierson, a former dot-com entrepreneur who's also a top official with the Hong Kong branch of Democrats Abroad.
SEATS IN CONGRESS? Given the predictions of most politicos that the U.S. is divided among Blue states (Democratic), Red states (GOP), and Purple states (who knows), Rierson says it makes sense to limit the anti-Bush rhetoric.
Longer term, he's hopeful that Americans living overseas will get more recognition from the government. He's optimistic that the 2010 census will, for the first time, count the number of U.S. citizens abroad. Estimates range as high as 7 million, a population about the size of Virginia. "As soon as they do a census of overseas citizens," he says, "one of the next logical steps would be for direct representation of those interests. This means congressmen. This means senators."
Rierson admits that's a bit far-fetched. "Voting is a states issue. I doubt they would give it up anytime soon." So for now, he's focusing his attention on turning out the vote for the election this fall.
Remembering Florida and its hanging chads, Rierson holds out hope that the little Web site that got its start from a dinner conversation in Hong Kong could make a difference in determining the next U.S. President. Einhorn covers technology from Hong Kong for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Online Asia column, only on BusinessWeek Online