Across the street from USA Donuts in Phnom Penh on Saturday afternoon, a blue banner draped on a red tuk-tuk read “US Citizens in Cambodia for Obama.”
Inside the shop, for Cambodia’s first-ever walk-in Democratic primary election, the atmosphere was nothing short of festive—and plainly American.
Red and blue balloons hung from the ceiling, oversized boxes of Fruit Loops and Kraft macaroni and cheese lined the aisles, and many of the dozens milling around the voting box in the center of the small store had a complimentary glazed donut hole in hand.
“It’s like your neighborhood store: People are gathered around the tables having coffee, eating donuts, talking about politics and voting,” said Wayne Weightman, Cambodia’s chair of Democrats Abroad, which ran primaries in 33 countries.
Saturday’s walk-in primary allowed Americans living in Cambodia to cast a vote in the hotly contested campaign to select the Democratic Party’s candidate for the upcoming US presidential election. Democrats Abroad, which has members in more than 100 countries, will be considered the equivalent of a US state, similar in voting power to the US territory of Guam, with 11 votes that will go toward selecting the Democratic nominee.
By Sunday morning, the tuk-tuk across the street seemed to have ushered in more than just curious stares, as US presidential contender Barack Obama took a provisional 78 percent of the vote, according to Weightman.
Hillary Clinton came in second with just under 21 percent, and 1 percent of voters checked the uncommitted box, he said, adding that Internet votes, which are open until Feb 12, have not yet been factored in.
Weightman declined to disclose how many of the roughly 1,800 embassy-registered Americans came out to vote, but he said there was a steady stream of people throughout the four-hour voting window.
Saturday’s vote also marks a shift in the US voting process that may prophesy future elections.
Internet and fax voting were allowed for the first time this year, as well as the walk-in primaries, in an effort to make voting more accessible.
Previously, in order to vote from overseas US citizens had to apply for a mail-in absentee ballot and the logistics involved deterred many.
“The Democratic Party is watching to see how this goes,” Weightman said.
“This could change the flavor of elections.”
He said that in the 2006 election, absentee ballots in two US states tipped the vote—indicating that the overseas American population stands to make a significant difference.
Seng Kan, a 67-year-old born in Takeo province who moved to the US in 1980 before returning 13 years later, couldn’t agree more.
He said Saturday, while manning the voting box as a volunteer for Democrats Abroad, that he feels strongly compelled to be politically active.
“Democracy is expanding all over the world. Wherever you stay or wherever you go, you can vote,” he said.
Vaddey Ratner, a 37-year-old Cambodian American writer who has also lived in Missouri and Minnesota, said she is excited to be voting, though torn between candidates.
“I’m voting for Hillary,” she said.
“We need a woman president,” she said, adding that election results will have an impact on her life even though she now lives in Phnom Penh.
“Every year I go back. My entire family is there,” Ratner said. “I still feel it’s home.”
Adel O’Regan, a 50-year-old social worker from New York City who has been in Cambodia one year, said Saturday that although she was politically active in the US, she likely wouldn’t have voted in this primary if it hadn’t been for the convenience of walk-in voting.
“This is really important to me,” she said, but when asked whether she would have voted absentee, she added: “probably not.”
“It was a wise decision to have it here…. There’s donuts.”