ZAHLE, Lebanon: The latest U.S. voter registration drive in the Bekaa town of Zahle drew a high turnout of Americans determined to cast their ballots in the looming presidential election.
“We’ve had more than 50 people register here today. We didn’t expect this many people to turn out. Typically people don’t pay much attention,” said Samir Khayat, who serves as a warden – one of around 200 throughout Lebanon – for Zahle, liaising between the local American community and the U.S. Embassy.
“Emails can get lost, so I called [all 200 U.S. registered citizens in Zahle] one by one,” he said, as he took the names of voters showing up at his family’s hotel, Monte Alberto, situated atop a cliff overlooking Zahle. He gave the Americans he reached over the phone the information they need to vote and reminded them of their civic duty.
There are approximately 100,000 U.S. citizens in Lebanon, only 10,000 of whom are registered at the embassy.
“A lot of people think that if they’re here and they vote absentee it doesn’t count,” Khayat said.
“But then they [realize] they have a duty to vote and they know their vote counts, [so] they do it.”
The U.S. presidential election, which comes amid persistent turmoil in the Middle East, will be held on Nov. 6. But before that, citizens must register to vote, which they can do as absentees if living abroad. Depending on the voter’s state or county, registration may be done online. The deadline for registration varies between 15 and 30 days before the election.
Voter registration drives have been held in various cities in Lebanon, including Beirut and Batroun, but for security reasons not in the south or Tripoli. Wardens such as Khayat provide a service to American citizens that the embassy cannot manage because of travel restrictions on embassy employees in Lebanon.
Indeed, the open and hospitable atmosphere of the voter registration drive at the hilltop hotel in Zahle was a welcome change for some who feel uncomfortable with the tight security at the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon.
Lorianne Uminski, a Beirut-based English teacher from Massachusetts who was put off by the embassy’s security measures during a recent visit, said she was glad voter registration was being done away from the embassy: “This is the best voter registration I’ve ever been to.”
Uminski, an independent who plans to vote for incumbent Democratic President Barack Obama, said living abroad has made her appreciate democracy and want to participate in elections.
“It makes me understand how America affects the world. The election is very important for the face of America,” she said.
“Bush did a number on us. It will take a while to get back on track.”
For his part, Riad Bendok, a resident of Zahle who previously lived in Chicago, where he obtained citizenship in 1975, said he will be voting for Republican candidate and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who for him has shown the best leadership skills during this electoral campaign.
“It’s very important for the whole world to have the right president for the United States.”
By the end of the three-hour voter registration drive, Khayat had registered more than 65 American voters. This was followed by a mezze lunch at the hotel for both party affiliates.