By Stephen Vargha
Labor Day week is the traditional kickoff to the political season in the United States. It gained the distinction due to the fact that the summer vacation season is over, kids are back in school and it is only two months until the November elections.
The Ecuadorian chapter of Democrats Abroad is doing its part to help expats be a part of the November 8 elections. “Any American who would like to exercise their right to vote, we will register them,” said Ellie Wallis, Chair of the Ecuador chapter. “We do not care what political party you are affiliated with as we believe in a strong two-party system where people can easily vote.”
“I came here to eat and did not know they were registering people, so I filled out the necessary forms online,” said Richard Hoff of Chaullabamba. The retired Philadelphia Police officer had come to Calvo & Co. for lunch, when he happened upon the members of Democrats Abroad.
On Equality Day, the anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that prohibits states and the federal government from denying the right to vote on the basis of one’s gender, Hoff registered as a Republican in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Democrats Abroad, the official Democratic Party arm for more than 3 million potential U.S. overseas voters, is responsible for making sure these voters have all the help they need to get out the vote. In 2018, Democrats Abroad helped 150,000 members, in 190 countries, with their registration and voting.
The organization is trying to get every American to vote in November as former president Donald Trump and his loyalists have strategically targeted political state positions that will play a critical role in supervising the next presidential election. Many of the 27 Secretary of State contests this year have turned into expensive and partisan showdowns.
Prior to 2021, a Secretary of State in the United States operated in relative obscurity. Most Americans had no idea of the position’s responsibilities and bureaucratic duties. Many states’ Secretary of State are in charge of a smooth and safe administration of elections. It was far removed from the partisan battles confronting other statewide offices.
This partisanship has increased voter interest and registration. “I was aware of Democrats Abroad from last fall when I was checking out Cuenca,” said John Olson. “When I saw the notices on the group’s Facebook page, I came here to register overseas.” Olson is now able to vote as a Democrat in Chicago from his home in Cuenca.
The organization uses Vote From Abroad, a non-partisan platform that helps U.S. citizens vote from abroad by producing the necessary Federal forms. In using that website, only the information necessary for filling out Federal forms related to voting as U.S. citizen overseas is collected. One’s data privacy is their top concern.
There wasn’t an Ecuadorian chapter prior to Wallis moving to Cuenca. “I was on the board of Americans for Democratic Action (a liberal independent political organization that was formed in 1947 by a group of labor leaders) and I met an American who lived half-time in Mexico and ran the country’s chapter of Democrats Abroad,” said Wallis. “I said to myself that when I move to Ecuador, I’ll join that chapter.”
She found out, however, that there wasn’t one. “I met Ellie and we decided to form a chapter,” said Jo Ellen Kuney. The founding chairperson moved from Washington, DC after being an aide for the late Sen. Alan Cranston (D-CA).
“When we started the Ecuadorian chapter, we had 114 members,” said Wallis. “Now, we’re close to 1,500 members.” The chapter has to keep its membership current. “We follow up every year to make sure they are still in Ecuador,” said Wallis.
The annual follow-ups are part of the federal requirements for voting abroad. “In the last election, Democrats Abroad made over 66,000 calls to verify where people lived,” said Wallis.
American citizens abroad are eligible to vote in all presidential and congressional elections. It does not matter how long you have been living abroad or whether you ever intend to return to the United States.
Many states require absentee voters to register annually. To register to vote, an American needs to use the last residential address where they lived in the United States. It is not where they will receive their absentee ballots. The address is used to determine one’s voting district.
Wallis and her committee have done an excellent job of helping expats in Cuenca and throughout the country in getting out the vote. “We have gotten a lot of recognition for a very high percentage of expats in Ecuador using our website, voting.org,” said Wallis.
About 60 percent of American voters in Ecuador are 60 years old and older, according to Wallis. About half of the Ecuadorian chapter of Democrats Abroad membership lives in Cuenca.
The Democratic National Committee treats Democrats Abroad as a state. “We have delegates at the Democratic National Convention. Democrats Abroad votes right after Delaware,” said Kuney. “In 2016, Democrats Abroad’s representative was Bernie Sanders’ brother. Larry Sanders gave the group’s votes. Tears were flowing down Bernie’s face as the numbers were given.”
Every Tuesday and Friday through mid-October, Democrats Abroad is at the Calvo & Co. restaurant at Los Cipreses 1-133, to help every American with their votes. “We are only a facilitator,” said Wallis. “We try to help people with any issues they have with their county or state.”
A great example Wallis cited were two or three voters from Palm Beach County, Florida who were recently having troubles getting a ballot. “Federal law says that a county must mail, preferably email a ballot at least 45 days prior to the election,” said Wallis. “I contacted the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections office, which told me they had mailed out their registration cards to get their ballots.”
Prior to the pandemic, Ecuador barely had a postal service. In May 2021, in a televised address, President Lenín Moreno said Ecuador was suffering a crisis worse than “all the wars and natural disasters put together that the country has suffered throughout its history.” One of the cost-cutting measures Moreno made was the closing of the country’s post office.
The assistance by Democrats Abroad paid off. The Florida voters were finally able to get their registration cards for the upcoming elections.
One state’s residents are getting most of the assistance from Democrats Abroad. “Because each county in Texas has their own set of rules for voting, people are coming to us for help,” said Wallis. We will sit with them until their issues have been resolved and they can vote.”
Though a majority of states, like North Carolina and Florida, allow voters to email back their ballots, some states don’t. Big states like New York, Texas, and Illinois require ballots to be mailed back.
“We are trying to get discounts with (the German courier) DHL,” said Wallis. “In the meantime, the American Embassy in Quito will send us a diplomatic pouch in late-October to ship all of the ballots back to the United States.” If one misses that pickup, it may be too late to get the ballot back in time to be counted.
On top of all of the local help, Democrats Abroad has a global Zoom team to assist American voters worldwide. A schedule is being worked on for all voters in need of help. Time slots will be advertised on this chapter’s website.
In the meantime, one can go to the west side of Cuenca on Tuesday and Friday from 12 Noon to 2 p.m. to get everything straightened out, followed by a delicious lunch in the next room.
Photos by Stephen Vargha