Expats do a double take upon entering the back room at Trocadero, a restaurant and lounge in downtown San José.
Block letters pasted above the door read “El Hillary,” and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton peers down from three Andy Warhol-style paintings on the far wall.
The U.S. presidential race is a hot topic around the globe, and Costa Rica, home to more than 30,000 U.S. citizens, is no exception.
Since Illinois Sen. Barack Obama beat Clinton to become the presumptive Democratic nominee earlier this month, expat groups have stepped up efforts to convert and register voters.
Trocadero’s owner, Eliot Campos, has voted Democrat in every presidential election since 1982. But with Clinton’s defeat, he is undecided.
“I don’t know whether to vote or not. And if I vote, I don’t know whom I’d vote for,” said Campos, a dual citizen who lived in New York until he was 12.
Political activists here will court people like Campos in coming months, as Obama battles GOP Arizona Sen. John McCain in what may become a tight contest this fall.
For Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad, the official party organizations for U.S. citizens living overseas, the focus is on registering voters. Both groups will run voter registration tables at a July 4 picnic in Alajuela, northwest of San José.
Pat and Willy Piessens, in charge of voter registration for Democrats Abroad, have stopped by meetings of expat groups to help them fill out forms. They do home visits for voters over 90 years of age.
“You name it, we’ve contacted them,” said Pat Piessens, who supported Obama “from day one” and wears his pin.
Democrat Gabriela Valenzuela, who has dual citizenship, registers voters in Tamarindo in the northwestern province of Guanacaste. Using the parent directory at Country Day, a private U.S.-style school with a Guanacaste campus, Valenzuela calls and emails expats and knocks on doors.
“I’m a Clintonian, and I did everything I could to help Hillary,” she said. “(But) the Democratic Party is a family … and now it’s Obama’s time.”
Expats can vote in the state where they last lived, even if they no longer have property there and never intend to return. To register to vote and request an absentee ballot, expats must fill out a one-page federal post card application and mail it to their “home” state. Some states accept the form by fax or email.
Deadlines range between early September and early November, depending on the state or territory. Upon receiving an expat’s form, a state sends the expat an absentee ballot.
Alabama, Mississippi and Puerto Rico require that a notary signs the ballot, while Alaska, Louisiana, Virginia, Wisconsin and North and South Carolina require signatures from one or two witnesses.
Notaries are on call at the U.S. Embassy in Pavas, a western district of San José. Staff there attends to U.S. citizens every weekday from 8 to 11:30 a.m. and Mondays from 1 to 3 p.m. Vice consul Stacy Comp said the process can be confusing.
“Let’s say you’re not registered anywhere, but you grew up in Oklahoma and you moved to WashingtonD.C., but you own a house in Arkansas, and you’re like, ‘Which one of the three can I register to vote in?’” she said. “The answer is, it depends on each state … but it’s really where you have the strongest ties, or your last place of residence.”
With the two candidates nearly neck and neck – Obama has a 2- to 15-point lead in recent polls – the expat vote could be important.
The U.S. State Department estimates about 3.3 million citizens live abroad, 30,000 to 50,000 in Costa Rica.
Seeking to capture that electorate, educator Diana Kerry campaigned here in August 2004 for her brother, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.
For now, Obama and McCain appear to be focusing on U.S. soil. McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said the campaign has no plans to visit Costa Rica. Obama’s campaign did not respond to The Tico Times’ phone or e-mail requests for comment.
Still, Republicans Abroad International, based in Washington, D.C., will launch an advertising campaign in English-language newspapers across the globe, including in Costa Rica, said David Ellis, head of the local chapter.
“The theme we want is patriotism and pride in being American and pride in being Republican,” Ellis said.
Meanwhile, Obama has made inroads among expats here thanks to Michael Caggiano, who owns Hotel Alta in the southwestern San José suburb of Santa Ana.
Caggiano said he raised about $3,000 for the Democratic candidate at an April event in the hotel’s La Luz Restaurant.
Neither major candidate does much for Dan Spitzer, a Korean War veteran who lives in Heredia, north of San José. Put off by big spending on both sides of the aisle, Spitzer is leaning toward Libertarian Party candidate Bob Barr, a former Republican congressman from Georgia who has 2 percent of the vote, according to a recent Fox News poll.
“My vote is not going to elect or ‘dis-elect’ either one of the Republicans or Democrats,” Spitzer said.
Back at Trocadero, the portraits of Hillary Clinton continue to surprise and amuse expats and Ticos alike. Campos said he would keep them on the wall, surrounded by James Dean, Albert Einstein and the Beatles.
“It’s like a memory – the first woman who almost won,” he said. “Maybe she’ll run again.”
For More Info On How to Vote
Call Democrats Abroad, ask for Pat or Willy, 2282-5365, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.votefromabroad.org.
Contact Republicans Abroad, Margaret Sohn, 2232-5016, or e-mail email@example.com.
Go to government Web sites http://www.fvap.gov/ or http://sanjose.usembassy.gov/elections2008.html.