Clinton, Obama Battle for Omsk

In an unusually suspenseful race that has gripped the United States, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are locked in a showdown for the Democratic nomination in the U.S. presidential election -- and it could all be decided this week when voters go to the polls in battlegrounds like California, Missouri and Minnesota.

Not to mention Irkutsk, Murmansk and Omsk.

Democrats Abroad, the party's official branch for expatriate voters, kicks off its own worldwide primary Tuesday. Treated as a "state" by the Democratic Party, the organization gets 11 votes at the party's nominating convention, scheduled to take place in Denver, Colorado, on Aug. 28.

The local chapter of Democrats Abroad has gotten "an extreme amount of interest from all over Russia," said Andrew Hardisty, its acting chair.

Officially registered as a chapter last year, Democrats Abroad Russia has seen its membership rolls grow by 50 percent in the past three weeks, Hardisty said. He declined to give total numbers, citing Democrats Abroad policy.

"Everybody is very excited about the Democratic candidates, and also everybody has been very, very disappointed in the last eight years of the Bush administration," Hardisty said.

In addition to their dislike of U.S. President George W. Bush, expatriates throughout Russia have been motivated to sign up with Democrats Abroad thanks to its new online voting option, Hardisty said.

Registered members of Democrats Abroad can vote by Internet for the first time in this election. Other options include voting by fax, mail and at polling stations in 33 countries around the world, including one in Moscow on Feb. 10. The weeklong primary starts Tuesday and runs till Feb. 12.

While Democrats Abroad has been holding primaries since 1976, it expects to have a much broader reach this year thanks to Internet voting. Traditional vote-by-mail schemes tend to be impractical for many Americans living abroad because of unreliable postal systems. Some 6 million U.S. citizens living abroad are eligible to vote, but only a fraction typically do so.

"The online system is incredibly secure: That was one of our biggest goals," Lindsey Reynolds, executive director of Democrats Abroad, told The Associated Press. "And it does allow access to folks who ordinarily wouldn't get to participate."

The Internet voting system is managed by Everyone Counts, a San Diego-based company that has previously run online elections for the British Labour Party.

Republicans Abroad, representing the other side of the U.S. political spectrum, does not hold a primary and is not an official branch of the GOP in the same way that Democrats Abroad is affiliated with the Democratic Party.

Its Russian chapter has been without a chairman since Michael Malloy, the former chairman, stepped down last year. Contacted by telephone, Malloy said he did not know of any Republicans Abroad activity currently taking place in Moscow.

The chairman of the Republicans Abroad in France -- who is listed as acting head of the Russia chapter on the Republicans Abroad web site -- did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment.

Although U.S. presidential candidates have traditionally paid little attention to overseas voters, interest has grown since the disputed 2000 election, when Bush beat Democratic candidate Al Gore by a margin of only 537 votes in the pivotal state of Florida, and absentee ballots from overseas became a point of contention in the ensuing Bush-Gore legal battle.

Candidates in the current Democratic primary have shown more interest in attracting overseas voters than in previous years, said Christine Schon Marques, international chair of Democrats Abroad.

"Some of the campaigns have held fundraising events overseas and have made serious efforts to address issues of concern to Americans overseas, to solicit their support and to get out the vote," Marques said by e-mail from Geneva.

The campaigns of Clinton, Obama and John Edwards, who dropped out of the race last week, all have overseas representatives. Both Clinton and Obama, as well as Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani, have held fundraisers in London, which is home to a large number of well-off U.S. expats. Antiwar candidate Dennis Kucinich has even met with potential voters in Lebanon. Both Giuliani and Kucinich have since ended their bids.

Russia, with its relatively small community of Americans, has not gotten as much attention as Western Europe, Hardisty said.

With the latest polls showing Clinton and Obama deadlocked ahead of the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday primaries, the two campaigns have more incentive than usual to court the 22 delegates from Democrats Abroad.

Party rules give each delegate a half-vote in the convention, which comes out to 11 votes total -- less than the least populated states, Alaska and Wyoming (18 each), but more than some U.S. territories, like Guam and American Samoa (9 each).

Voting in the Democrats Abroad primary was set to begin in Jakarta, Indonesia, early Tuesday morning. In a sign of the candidates' interest in the overseas vote, Obama's sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, and Hillary Clinton's daughter, Chelsea, were scheduled to speak to voters gathered in a Jakarta hotel by telephone, The Associated Press reported Monday.

In Moscow, the local chapter of Democrats Abroad plans to open an official polling station next Sunday, Feb. 10, at The Place restaurant, located on the ground floor of the Riverside Towers office complex near the Paveletskaya metro station. The restaurant's address is Kosmodamianskaya Naberezhnaya 52, Bldg. 5, and the polls will be open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Registration is not required beforehand, Hardisty said, adding that ballots can be filled out by anyone who shows proof of U.S. citizenship, signs a statement stating that he or she abides by the principles of the Democratic Party, and will be 18 years or older by Nov. 4.

Online voting is only available to those who registered on the Democrats Abroad web site by Jan. 31. In the run-up to that deadline, Hardisty got registration requests from as far away as Irkutsk, Murmansk and Omsk -- and at all hours of the night.

"I go to sleep at 12:00 at night, I wake up at 5:30 in the morning, and I've got five new members," he said with some puzzlement. "Where are these members joining? Do they ever sleep?"