RECAP: “The Political Inclusion of Americans Abroad,” with KICD Postdoc Tara Ginnane

If social science theories often try to flatten ambiguities in political identity, the subject of Kinder Institute Postdoctoral Fellow Tara Ginnane’s September 24th talk—the rise of American external voting policy and the new ideas about national membership and belonging that came with it—allows these ambiguities room to take on appropriate significance.

The ‘American’ designation for external voting, she explained, should not be taken to suggest that it is a policy phenomenon at all unique to the U.S. In fact, external voting has become part of a standard toolkit for modern states, reflecting changes in how they spatialize political community and how they understand and value emigrants and diasporas. That said, for a number of reasons, the United States does provide an interesting, because somewhat counter-intuitive, case study. Specifically, existing theories for the extension of external voting rights focus on a range of factors—attracting investment from non-resident citizens and partisan competition, to name two—that don’t apply to the U.S.

As Prof. Ginnane explored in the doctoral research from which her talk was drawn, the domestic rise of external voting instead has wartime roots. Its first iteration dates back to 1864, when, at Lincoln’s behest, 19 states allowed enlisted soldiers to vote absentee, and its formal codification in the 20th century emerged during World War II, with the 1942 Soldier Voting Act ensuring that military personnel deployed abroad could vote in federal elections via special ballot. From here, non-resident franchise in federal elections progressively expanded: first to government employees posted abroad, through the 1955 Federal Voting Assistant Act; then to all citizens temporarily living abroad, through an amendment of the FVAA; and finally, with the passage of 1976’s Overseas Citizens Voting Rights Act, to all citizens living abroad regardless of government affiliation or time spent outside the U.S.

In unpacking the thinking that led to the OCVRA, as well as some of the debates surrounding it, Prof. Ginnane began by noting a certain theoretical disconnect. Non-resident citizens were poorly legible to the state—the U.S. had very little information about things as basic as who was abroad, where, and for how long—yet the government still felt some sense of obligation, and even urgency, to engage them. The result was that they had to construct a template of sorts for a non-resident citizen from vague impressions and stereotypes. What they landed on was a reluctant professional who had shallow roots abroad and an active intent to return stateside. This did not, of course, account for a number of ex-pats who didn’t fit this bill (those with dual citizenship, those who were abroad with family), nor did the rough sketch of a reluctant professional describe individuals living abroad whom the U.S. was worried about extending voting rights to: Social Security retirees in their native homes behind the Iron Curtain, for example, or tax emigrants in Costa Rica. Still, though, the policy was broadly inclusive, perhaps because of the assumption that these “ex-pats of concern” wouldn’t vote in federal elections anyhow. Returning to the wartime roots of the OCVRA, in justifying reluctant professionals’ membership in an enfranchised political community, lawmakers transformed them into de factor soldiers, emphasizing that they met the military personnel’s standard of virtuous citizenship and service to the nation. Oftentimes, Prof. Ginnane added, this idea of service was couched in a language of footholds and beachheads that revealed the central place that the spread of American capitalism held in legislators’ conception of national interest.

We can, Prof. Ginnane noted in closing, see interesting new dimensions to American identity and its construction when we view it through this lens of virtuous, emigrant service. For one, this approach debunks the idea that emigration is tantamount to a rejection of the shared ideals around which civic identity is crafted and instead shows that some ideals might be infinitely stretchy and that civic nations constituted around or by them can “happen” anywhere. Similarly, it pushes back against those territorial understandings of national identity which perceive of the U.S. as a political community of individuals defined and contained by shared laws, public cultures, and borders. This doesn’t mean that external voting proves that territory doesn’t matter to the formation of identity—at its core, the OCVRA does, after all, distinguish between domestic voters and voters abroad—but only that it’s unclear how it matters.