Prague-based world head of Democrats Abroad: Our votes could win White House

Julia Bryan, photo: archive of Julia Bryan

Few in the Czech Republic will be watching the US presidential and congressional elections on November 3 as closely as Julia Bryan. Bryan – a long-time Prague resident – is the international chair of Democrats Abroad, the party’s official organisation for the millions of Americans resident outside the country. When we spoke the conversation took in the impact voters outside America can have on domestic polls, why Democrats Abroad endorsed Bernie Sanders, the obstacles overseas voters can face – and much more.

How long have you been here in Prague? And what brought you to the city?

“I’ve been here for 21 years. I came in 1999, for one year, to work and explore Europe.”

What led you to stay in that case?

“Well, you know how it is – you come for one year and then you’re like, Oh, this is fun!

“But at the end of the year I was, like, Actually, I didn’t explore Europe, because I worked every single day.

“So I said, OK, we should stay for one more year. And we stayed for one more year.

“I was with my husband and at the end of the second year, I had actually taken over the company I was working with and I said, This is a great place to live – you’re an academic and we love Prague, so why don’t we stay a little bit longer.

“People don’t know they can vote, they don’t know how to vote and they don’t know that their vote counts.”

“And, you know, Prague is a wonderful place to live with kids.

“It’s a super place to explore. It’s always changing. You never get tired of the city.

“It’s just amazing how you wake up and there’s something new to explore.

“I’m always finding streets, even now when I wander around Prague, that I’ve never been on.

“So it’s just a great place to live.”

What’s your own background politically? Did you grow up in a Democratic household?

“I did.

“I’m from Charleston, South Carolina, but my father and my mother taught us that it was really important for us to stick up for other people and make sure we were not just thinking about ourselves when we went to the ballot box.”

Were you active in the party when you were still living in America?

“I was not. I voted and I went to rallies, but I wasn’t active in the party.”

I understand you helped start the Democrats Abroad Country Committee here in the Czech Republic. How many members does the organisation have? And what do you actually do?

“Democrats Abroad Czech Republic is a small segment of the Americans who live here and who are actually Democratic and vote here.

Joe Biden,  photo: ČTK/AP/Carolyn Kaster

“It’s a bit over 1,000.

“Our major mission, here and abroad actually, is to help people vote.”

Why would they need help?

“Voting from abroad is not simply walking into your fire station and casting your ballot.

“When you vote from abroad, you actually have to request your ballot every calendar year you want to vote.

“Then you need to get your ballot, figure out all the slightly complicated and labyrinthine instructions and send your ballot back.

“People don’t know they can vote, they don’t know how to vote and they don’t know that their vote counts.

“So we do all of that. We are kind of A to Z provider of solutions.

“We also go to bat for them.

“There are a lot of jurisdictions in the United States this year who are either misinformed, deliberately or not, about overseas voting and the rules that go around it.

“We experience for our own selves something that’s only theoretical for Americans. We experience universal healthcare, we experience public transportation that works.”

“So one of our jobs is to say, Hey, I’m sorry, you’re wrong, let’s look at federal law and this is what you need to do and how you need to handle these ballots.”

Since 2017 you’ve been the international chair of Democrats Abroad, overseeing dozens of country committees and hundreds of organisers around the world. Is that a full-time post?

“Yes, it is.

“We actually have 45 country committees. We have members in over 197 countries.

“We have voters in Antarctica this year – it’s kind of cool.

“So really, every place you can think of, there’s going to be a voter, a member of Democrats Abroad.

“We have over 18,000 volunteers and almost 1,000 leaders.”

How important are the votes of voters resident outside America when it comes to US elections?

“If you think about it, one in 25 elections in the United States is decided by a one-percent margin.

“We bring in that margin. We’re the margin of victory for a lot of these races.

“In 2018, we won Florida’s only Democratic statewide race. Those were Americans abroad votes.

“In 2016, we won North Carolina governor Roy Cooper’s governor’s race.

“We won Senator Maggie Hassan’s race in New Hampshire. Without Maggie Hassan, ACA [the Affordable Care Act] would not be around.

Donald Trump,  photo: ČTK/AP/Alex Brandon

“So we’re really impactful. And this year, with North Carolina and Florida being so important, we may win the White House.”

You were telling me you were working on some kind of “voter protection stories”. What exactly do you mean by that?

“We have a team of lawyers and voter experts who are working with our Voter Help Team.

“Our Voter Help Team handles over 1,000 questions a day but then we get about a dozen questions a day that have to be escalated up to the Legal Team.

“These include, for instance, in Florida we had a county, right above Tampa, where the local election office was sending out ballots that only had the presidential candidates on it – it didn’t include the US congressional candidate.

“We wrote them and said, You also have to include the US congressional candidate.

“They said, That’s not a federal election, we don’t have to include that.

“So we actually had to get Florida lawyers involved, to go to this county and persuade them that, yes, indeed, a US congressional election was a federal election.

“It’s really interesting, the misinformation and the challenges that we’re facing.

“I’m so thrilled that we have a legal team both abroad, and we’re working with state parties that all have legal teams as well, to solve these problems.”

So you’re finding that barriers are being placed in your way?

“They are. We have seen it in Florida quite a lot. We’ve seen it with Czech-based voters as well.

“It’s not enough anymore for us to help people register. We help them go all the way until their ballot’s accepted.”

“Sometimes it feels like hand to hand combat, when you’re arguing for days and sending emails after emails and making phone calls after phone calls with these local election offices to make sure that they are registering voters that should be registered.”

The majority of Americans abroad are registered Democrats. Why is it that Americans abroad more likely to be “blue”?

“It’s not just the majority – it’s the vast majority.

“Vote from Abroad right now has 2 percent registered Republicans and 81 percent registered Democrats.

“A lot of people are independent, but they tend to be very, very blue.

“And the reason that is is that we come abroad, we have a broader perspective, we’re interested in other people, we’re interested in other cultures.

“We experience for our own selves something that’s only theoretical for Americans.

“We experience universal healthcare, we experience public transportation that works, we experience very inexpensive public education for universities.

“Our taxes are higher but the benefits of those taxes are really evident and clear for us to see.”

Do the Republicans bother putting much effort into targeting US voters outside America?

“There is not a Republican Party Abroad – there’s a Super PAC called Republicans Overseas.

“As a Super PAC, their job is really to raise money.

“They are not inclined to get out the vote. That’s not what they focus on.”

Democrats Abroad cast more votes for Bernie Sanders than for Biden. Why was that? Is it the case that Democrats Abroad are more progressive in general?

“Yes, typically. Since 2008 you can always see that 70 percent of our votes are going to go for the progressive candidate, 30 percent are going to go for the moderate.

“This has just been the trend for the last 12 years, so it’s really not surprising that people would go for Bernie.

“He represents a lot of the progressive values that we enjoy.

“On the other hand, if you look at our numbers, and you look at the different candidates that we had, a lot of people were not just for Bernie, they were for Elizabeth Warren, they were for a lot of the other candidates who also represent progressive values across the board.

“I think in the end Bernie got 57 percent of the vote, but because ultimately we split our delegation between any candidates who get over 15 percent; that’s why he ended up in the 70 percent range.”

In recent years there have been some tensions in the Democratic Party in the States between mainstream figures like Nancy Pelosi and younger, more progressive members of Congress who are sometimes more focused on issues of identity and that kind of thing. Does a similar debate, or difference, appear among Democrats Abroad?

“Well it is definitely the most important election in our lifetime. Because democracy is on the ballot.”

“I don’t really think so.

“I think we’re all incredibly progressive. If you look at our platform, it’s probably one of the most progressive party platforms.

“I’m really proud of it, actually. It’s a quite thick document. We spent months and months working on it.

“We started out with what we called coffee klatches and we got together and would basically sit down and, as teams, go over different issues.

“Then we sent them into our global organisation and our platform team reviewed them.

“We spent hours and hours deliberating. We held meeting after meeting, as an organisation, deliberating our platform.

“So we’re really all very much inclined towards this more progressive outlook.

“We don’t really argue about it… I mean, of course we argue about it, because we Democrats love to argue and we love to wordsmith and it’s something very interesting for us.

“But I wouldn’t say there’s going to be a sizable number of people who are against these progressive issues.”

I’ve seen November’s presidential election described as “the most important election in our lifetime.” But is it really? For example, in the last election you could have had the first female president.

Photo: ČTK/AP/Lynne Sladky

“Well it is definitely the most important election in our lifetime. Because democracy is on the ballot.

“This is not just about two candidates. This is about the America that we want our families and friends to live in, it’s about the America that we want to maybe go back to, that we want to visit.

“It’s really a crucial election. It’s the moment we’re deciding whether or not democracy prevails or we move to an authoritarian state.”

Voters abroad use postal ballots generally, I guess, and that’s obviously a big issue in the election, with Trump evidently seeking to cast doubt over the trustworthiness of mail-in voting. Do your members have any concerns that their votes may not be counted, or I don’t know what?

“Just to break that down a bit: Twenty of the states where we send our ballots back require postal mail or hard copy ballot return. Thirty states allow for email or fax.

“So of course we are all voting by what Trump might call ‘vote by mail’, because we’re all returning our ballots from abroad.

“There’s always going to be concern. Luckily there are a lot of tracking programmes.

“We recommend our voters vote as early as possible and continually track their ballot until it’s accepted and marked as accepted on their voter registration sites.

“So it’s not enough anymore for us to help people register. We really help them go all the way until their ballot’s accepted.”

How simple is email voting?

“Every state is different. There are 8,000 jurisdictions around the United States.

“Every ballot is different. There are over 8,000 different ballots, and every system is a bit different too.

“Email is what we suggest, because it’s of course the fastest solution.

“You don’t have to rely on the US postal system, or on extremely expensive commercial couriers, which are basically a huge poll tax on voters.”

Biden has a lead in the polls right now, but still it’s obviously very hard to predict how it will go. How are you feeling in this moment? Are you confident? Are you nervous?

“The good news is the Vote from Abroad numbers… we’re basically up 2.5 times where we were in 2016.

“So I never, ever want to say, We have it.

“But it’s really very exciting to see these numbers.

“And I love that there’s been an overwhelming enthusiasm and turnout abroad. That’s just inspiring.

“There’s been an overwhelming turnout abroad.”

“I’m also hearing from secretaries of states offices in the States and they’re going, Oh my God, the abroad vote is overwhelming us.

“And I’m like, Yes! That’s what we want to do.

“We know that, at least in some of the smaller states, they’re seeing double the numbers of abroad votes ballots coming in – and that’s exactly our aim.”

Previously many Americans in Prague would have gathered at bars or elsewhere to hear the results come in on election night. This time that looks like it won’t be possible. What will you be doing this time?

“All of our country committees, or many of them, are going to have Zoom parties.

“So I’ll be going from one party to another.

“I know also I’ll be talking to the press.

“And I’ll be watching the news and working on our talking points.

“But it’s a lot of checking in with all of our committees, to energise them and to keep their spirits up.”