Could votes from abroad be crucial?

Carmen L. Muniz Quinones verifies that completed absentee ballots match up with a list of precincts at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department, Oct. 30, 2012, in Miami.

NEW YORK There have been many changes to the way Americans abroad -- including civilians, military personnel and their dependents -- can vote in U.S. elections, and organizers trying to rally them to participate say, this year, those votes could count for a lot.

According to the Association of Americans Resident Overseas, "6.32 million Americans (excluding military) live in 160-plus countries... If all these Americans were placed in one state, it would be the 17th most populous state in the U.S."

But how many are registered and how many will contribute to the tight races in battleground states?

The Overseas Vote Foundation (OVF) says U.S. military and federal civilian employees, along with voting age dependents and spouses, amounts to roughly the same number of people as the Federal Voting Assistance Program estimate for 2008, or about 2.5 million people.

Analysts say this election may be determined in the Electoral College by a dozen battleground states, in which, recent polls show, President Obama and Mitt Romney are virtually tied.

Those swing states are: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.

In the last (2008) Presidential Election, Americans overseas were registered in the largest numbers in Texas, California, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, and Washington.

Crunching the numbers, the OVF estimates that about 500,000 votes will be cast from overseas in this election, including many in several of the battleground states, meaning those states have some extra voters that are not included in most polls.

The U.S. Department of State has been trying to clear hurdles for U.S. citizens to vote from overseas. Their voting information website tells Americans: "Voting in 2012 is easier than ever before. Now all U.S. citizens can receive their blank ballots electronically. Depending on your state or county, you can get your ballot by email, fax, or internet download."

Almost two dozen states are explicitly allowing Americans to vote in federal elections by registering in the legal voting residence of their parents back home.

Several laws have passed that also make it much easier to vote from abroad. The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA), the Military and Overseas Empowerment Act (MOVE), and the Uniformed Military and Overseas Voter Act (UMOVA) have streamlined the process since 2008.

"Every single year the overseas vote can be decisive in the election," Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, President and CEO of the U.S. Vote Foundation and Overseas Vote Foundation, told CBS News. But she added that, "we don't believe that there will be more voting by overseas Americans than in previous years, unfortunately, despite $25 million of investment into the overseas voting program."

"I would not say Americans abroad are more motivated this year, but they have become more interested since the debates in a noticeable way: there is trepidation about backtracking on foreign policy, and there is concern about tax policy overseas, and they are interested in healthcare policy, as many Americans overseas are recipients of Medicare, believe it or not."

If the numbers indicate that expatriates could make a difference this year, the question is: how do they vote?

Pundits seem to take for granted that U.S. military and their families vote overwhelmingly Republican and American non-military expats tend to vote Democratic. But several mobilization campaigns for particular blocs may challenge that conventional wisdom.

Both President Obama and Romney have, for all practical purposes, campaign ground operations in Israel, for example.

A get-out-the-vote operation called iVoteIsrael estimates that 75,000 of the 300,000 Americans living in Israel will vote this year, many of whom voted early. The American vote from Israel has been small in past elections, but Dan Diker, the Secretary General of the World Jewish Congress, told CBS News this year's expat vote from the Jewish state "is important."

"Americans in Israel are expected to count up to 70,000 votes - a majority for Romney," said Diker.

That may be due in large part to an active campaign by the Republican Jewish Coalition to shrink the high level of support Obama enjoyed from Jewish voters in the U.S. and in Israel in 2008. An early 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center's project on religion showed Jewish support for the GOP rising.

No one really knows how Americans living in Israel will vote in swing states - and there are divisions. The American Jewish Committee's national survey of American Jewish Opinion in September showed President Obama's support to be "better than two to one" over Romney and subsequent newspaper endorsements in Israel and the U.S. have been split.

Sallie Chaballier, an Ohioan living in Paris, said social media is vital to Americans living outside the states. The Facebook page "Ohioans Abroad" has helped keep her involved and informed, she says.

"Overseas Americans are very motivated to vote this year, not only because it's a close election, but because the candidates represent such starkly different visions of the U.S.," said Chaballier.

The Democratic and Republican parties have active committees throughout the world: Democrats Abroad has a country committees list that resembles the United Nations membership, from Afghanistan to Zambia, and Republicans Abroad boasts a comparable network.

Although expat voter turnout is not expected to be significantly higher than it was in 2008, the votes from abroad could be a boost in some of the swing states.

As the OVF points out to its members, "In 2000, two states' Electoral Votes in the U.S. presidential election were decided by overseas ballots (Florida, 537 votes and New Mexico, 366 votes)."

  • Pamela Falk

    Pamela Falk is CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst and an international lawyer, based at the United Nations.