It's just possible that you have heard this once or twice before recently, but the forthcoming American election, on November 2, may be the most important in living memory. People have been saying this about every presidential race for decades - but, as one environmentalist put it recently in a US newspaper interview, precisely the problem with crying wolf is that sometimes there is a wolf. You would be forgiven, though, for feeling increasingly helpless as you hear the "most important election" mantra repeated daily: unless you happen to be a voter in a handful of swing states, there's little you can do about the final result. If you're not American, the situation is more acute. Certainly, the actions of the US impact on our lives in overwhelming ways; British political life may now be at least as heavily influenced by White House policy as by the choices of UK voters. And yet, though the US Declaration of Independence speaks of "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind", you don't, of course, have a vote. You can't even donate money to the campaigns: foreign contributions are outlawed. And you're unlikely to have the chance to do any campaigning on the ground. All you can do is wait and watch: you're powerless.
Or are you? At G2, that sounded like fighting talk. Where others might see delusions of grandeur, we saw an opportunity for public service - and so, on the following pages, we have assembled a handy set of tools that non-Americans can use to have a real chance of influencing the outcome of the vote. We've identified ways to give money to help your preferred candidate, even though direct campaign contributions from foreigners aren't allowed. There are ideas for making your voice heard in the influential local media outlets where it could really count. And at the core of it is a unique scheme to match individual Guardian readers to individual American voters, giving you the opportunity to write a personal letter, citizen to citizen, explaining why this election matters to you, and which issues you think ought to matter to the US electorate. It may even be a chance to persuade somebody to use their vote at all.
To maximise the likelihood of your efforts making a difference, we've zeroed in on one of the places where this year's election truly will be decided: Clark County, Ohio, which is balanced on a razor's edge between Republicans and Democrats. In the 2000 election, Al Gore won Clark County by 1% - equivalent to 324 votes - but George Bush won the state as a whole by just four percentage points. This time round, Ohio is one of the most crucial swing states: Kerry and Bush have been campaigning there tire lessly - they've visited Clark County itself - and the most recent Ohio poll shows, once again, a 1% difference between the two of them. The voters we will target in our letter-writing initiative are all Clark County residents, and they are all registered independents, which somewhat increases the chances of their being persuadable.
Several of the ideas described here can easily be applied across the US too, though, and we have provided further resources on our website for this purpose. While there's no point being coy about Britain's preferences in this election (never mind those of Guardain readers) - a poll last month put backing for Kerry at 47%, against 16% for Bush - we have included information for supporters of both main candidates.
It's worth considering at the outset how counterproductive this might all be, especially if approached undiplomatically. Anybody might be justifiably angered by the idea of a foreigner trying to interfere in their democratic process. But this year the issue is more charged than ever: the Bush/Cheney campaign has made a point of portraying Kerry as overly concerned about what other nations think, and the Democrat's ambiguous debate point about American foreign policy decisions needing to pass a "global test" has become one of the president's key lines of attack. "People don't necessarily want to hear what people from other countries have to say," says Rachelle Valladares, the London-based chair of Democrats Abroad. "If you contact someone you know personally in the States, and urge them to vote, it would probably carry twice the weight." Michael Dorf, a Columbia university law professor who has studied foreign influences on US elections, points out that it would not be to either candidate's advantage "to be seen as the candidate of the foreigners. Part of it's just xenophobia, but there is also a sense that, you know, this is our election: you vote for your parliament and prime minister, we vote for our president and Congress."
On the other hand, being from Britain ought to give you a certain leverage: in stump speeches and debates, Bush has repeatedly praised Tony Blair's cooperation over Iraq, making America's long-treasured alliance with the UK key to the president's defence of his foreign policy. Kerry, too, knows that he's speaking to a resilient strand of opinion when he emphasises the need for strong international alliances: a better coalition in Iraq, he constantly reiterates, might have saved US lives. (One recent poll suggested that 43% of Americans think that declining world respect for their nation is a "major problem".) As a British citizen, you can certainly wield some influence, but you could seriously alienate people too.
Write to a voter
The most powerful transatlantic connection is a personal one, so we have designed a system to match individual Guardian readers with individual voters in Clark County, in the crucial swing state of Ohio. To join in, visit www.theguardian.com/clarkcounty and enter your email address. You'll receive, by email, the name and postal address of a Clark County voter. We have included only those voters who chose to list themselves as unaffiliated, instead of as Republican or Democrat: that is no guarantee that they are persuadable, of course, but it does increase the chances. The data on which our system is based is publicly available, but we have designed it to give out each address only once, so there is no danger of recipients getting deluged.
In formulating your letter, you will need to introduce yourself: no individual Clark County voter will have any reason to be expecting your communication. And in choosing your arguments, keep in mind the real risk of alienating your reader by coming across as interfering or offensive. You might want to handwrite your letter, for additional impact, and we strongly recommend including your own name and address - it lends far more credibility to your views, and you might get a reply.
Finally, post your letter soon. Letters sent by regular airmail from the UK to the US usually take five days to reach their recipient, and there is little time to waste. Postage costs 43p for a postcard, 47p for a letter weighing 10g or less, and 68p for a letter weighing up to 20g. You don't have to visit a post office, but Royal Mail recommends writing "Par Avion - By Airmail" on the front of the envelope, and your return address on the back.
American law forbids foreigners from giving money to affect the outcome of a federal election - except that, on closer inspection, it doesn't. You're banned from donating to the campaigns themselves, or to many of the independent campaigning groups that fight explicitly on behalf of one candidate. So you need to identify officially non-partisan groups whose activities, none the less, have the practical effect of helping one candidate over the other. "Perhaps the most important way foreigners could help John Kerry would be to help out those organisations which have, as part of their mission, fostering African-American voter turnout," says Nathaniel Persily, a Pennsylvania university expert on election law. "It's quite clear that if there was 100% African-American turnout in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, John Kerry would win this election running away." The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is the most obvious choice here - an influential, well-organised, non-partisan body whose get-out-the-vote activities are extremely likely to end up helping the Democrats.
"On the Republican side, it would be the Christian conservatives," Persily adds. "[Bush adviser] Karl Rove has tried to register four million additional Christian evangelicals, and if they all turn out, then Bush wins." The leading option here would be the Christian Coalition, which describes itself as "America's leading grassroots organisation defending our Godly heritage". As for more overtly partisan organisations, we don't recommend trying to donate - but it's worth pointing out that much of the law banning foreign contributions has never been tested in court and, argues Michael Dorf at Columbia, may even be unconstitutional on grounds of free speech. "If a group calling itself Europeans for Truth wants to run ads giving their view of the truth," Dorf says, "it's hard to draw a principled distinction between that and a British newspaper available at a US newsstand that has an editorial calling Bush and Blair liars."
Visit the NAACP website: http://www.naacp.org
Give to the NAACP: https://www.naacp.org/contribute.php or fax a credit-card donation to 001 410 580 5623.
Give to the NAACP in Ohio:
Send a money order marked "donation" to NAACP, 233 South High Street, Columbus, Ohio 43215 USA. Give to the Christian Coalition: www.cc.org or phone 001 202 479 6900.
Give to the Christian Coalition in Ohio: www.ccohio.org or phone 001 330 8871922, or send a money order to Christian Coalition of Ohio, PO Box 852, Westfield Center, Ohio 44251, USA. For resources on giving money in other swing states, visit www.theguardian.com/clarkcounty.
Make your voice heard
If you want to broadcast your views to a wider audience, focus on the media outlets swing-state residents are reading and hearing. Take care: deluging the same organisation with numerous near-identical messages rarely impresses (we speak from experience), and some activists have run into controversy recently by disseminating "astroturf" - letters purporting to be personal but emanating, in reality, from party headquarters. Springfielders read the Springfield News Sun (www.springfieldnewssun.com;) and the Columbus Dispatch (www.dispatch.com), based in the nearby state capital, is another influential outlet.
If you're feeling brave, though, you might want to explore the highly influential talk-radio airwaves. On the right, the overarchingly dominant figure is Rush Limbaugh, heard on hundreds of stations nationwide, including 19 in Ohio, some of which can be heard in Clark County. This is a strictly at-your-own-risk proposition, but if you want to join the debate, listen to the show live on the web at www.rushlimbaugh.com, between 5pm and 8pm UK time every weekday, and call in on 001 800 282 2882. Among yesterday's topics: why John Kerry doesn't understand the significance of 9/11; why John Kerry would be dangerous for America; how John Kerry politicised the death of Christopher Reeve.
Air America, the upstart liberal radio counterweight, is still in its infancy, but it can be picked up in parts of Ohio and other battleground states. Listen to the flagship show presented by the leftwing humourist Al Franken at www.airamericaradio.com, also between 5pm and 8pm on weekdays, then call in on 001 866 303 2270 (neither call will be free from the UK). Franken's focus yesterday was the "absolutely shameless" behaviour of the conservative media in America.
You can target your message on other key states by visiting a website such as www.electoral-vote.com, which updates regularly with the latest local polls, so that you can identify where the race is currently closest. Select your state, then call up a list of relevant media contacts - or even send them emails directly - via the impressively comprehensive Capitol Advantage site at http://ssl.capwiz.com/congressorg/dbq/media/.
Win the chance to watch the campaign on the ground
We are offering the four people who write the most persuasive letters to Clark County voters the chance to travel there and watch the campaign in person. At the end of October, the winners will accompany a group of Guardian journalists to Ohio to meet voters and observe the closing days of the race. For a chance to take part, you should email a copy of your letter to firstname.lastname@example.org, or send a copy to Clark County competition, G2, The Guardian, 119 Farringdon Road, London EC1R 3ER. Letters should arrive no later than October 20.
· For more details on how you can get involved and latest news from the US campaign trail, go to theguardian.com/uselections2004. For terms and conditions of the Clark County competition, see www.theguardian.com/clarkcounty.