Americans in Canada: What role will expats play in the U.S. election?
Riley Parker opens vote-by-mail applications at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections in Cleveland, Ohio, Friday, Sept. 28, 2012. (AP / Tony Dejak)
Published Saturday, September 29, 2012 8:30AM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, September 29, 2012 9:03AM EDT
There will be no polling station or ballot box when Giles Hogya votes in the upcoming United States presidential election. Unless, that is, one counts the post office or mailbox.
Several thousand kilometres away from his home state of Ohio, Hogya is one of more than 300,000 American-Canadians. Though the retired theatre professor has carved out a life for himself in Victoria, B.C., lately his attention is fixed south of the border.
Like other Americans in Canada, Hogya intends to fill out an absentee ballot in the big November vote. That piece of paper, completed with his signature, will be mailed off to an election office back in the U.S. -- sent by express and tracked, no less.
“My vote counts and I want it to be counted. I want there to be a record of it being received,” says Hogya, who chairs the Victoria chapter of Democrats Abroad Canada.
American expatriates, living in Canada and elsewhere, are a sizable but statistically perplexing voter group. Election officials and analysts alike still struggle to pinpoint how many exist. As many as six million U.S. citizens are estimated to live abroad, but numbers suggest their overall voter turnout rates are generally low.
Even so, the importance of the expat vote is not to be underestimated. Overseas voters, specifically military voters, made a difference in the disputed 2000 presidential contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Military ballots, in particular, helped Bush seize the swing state of Florida.
It’s unclear what impact overseas voters will have when the race between Democrat Barack Obama and his Republican opponent Mitt Romney finishes on Nov. 6. But expats say their influence shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Expatriate Kelli Wight notes that more than a million of her U.S. compatriots are believed to have settled in Canada as residents -- forming a substantial American expatriate community.
“When you have an election that’s being won by a narrow margin, (absentee voters) can make a difference for sure,” she says in a phone interview from Toronto.
Wight moved to Toronto from Brooklyn in 1988 to settle down with her Canadian husband. But it wasn’t until the administration of former U.S. President Bill Clinton -- a period marked by NAFTA, “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” welfare reform and more -- that she began to look back.
“I became a little more interested in politics and wanted to do something more active than just voting,” says Wight. “When you live abroad you become acutely aware of your ‘Americaness.’ You no longer see the political situation in your home country as a given.”
Wight joined Republicans Abroad Canada where she helps other expatriates connect and cast ballots from afar. By her estimate, the group currently has around 230 members, the most active of which are believed to live in southern Ontario and Alberta.
She acknowledges that the group has fewer members than their Democratic counterpart, which currently boasts a membership in the quadruple digits. But, Wight surmises, the members of Republicans Abroad Canada appear to be more broadly spread out.
Political loyalties aside, Wight points out that American expats have one thing in common.
“I’m happy and proud to carry my American passport around,” she says. “I feel that I’m a good resident of Canada but I just don’t need to swear allegiance to another country.”
Voting abroad ‘can be a challenge’
When President Obama squared off against Republican John McCain in 2008, U.S. states shipped almost one million absentee ballots to overseas voters -- known collectively as “UOCAVA voters” after the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act.
Nearly half of those ballots (48.6 per cent) went to military voters, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
The number of completed ballots sent back by UOCAVA voters was 682,341. Of those, 93.6 per cent were counted, while other ballots were declared invalid due to missed submission deadlines, unacceptable signatures or other protocol.
Election watcher Michael McDonald, an associate professor at George Mason University in Virginia, says it can be difficult for overseas voters to participate in the system. Especially when it comes to receiving and completing absentee ballots.
“Some people are in hard-to-reach locations, especially military groups who are deployed and act in combat areas like Afghanistan. Certainly it can be a challenge for them. It can also be a challenge for someone that’s in the Peace Corps or a rural area to get mail in a timely manner.”
U.S. lawmakers have attempted to make it easier for overseas citizens to exercise their right to vote. Enacted in 2009, this will be the first time the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act is tested in a presidential election. The act debuted in the 2010 primaries.
Under the MOVE Act, U.S. states are required to send out absentee ballots no later than 45 days before a federal election. The only exception is when the state has been granted an “undue hardship waiver” in an exceptional circumstance such as a natural disaster.
Certain issues have been raised with the MOVE’s 45-day window. For instance, states that hold later primaries could argue they don’t have sufficient time to prepare absentee ballots.
Complicating matters, election officials are required to send out ballots using a method selected by the absentee voter. Email is an option, but if snail mail is selected, the official must comply.
“To mail out ballots, you would have to print them out and put them in envelopes. Preparation would be necessary a few weeks prior to that point in time when you actually send out ballots,” McDonald notes in a phone interview from Virginia.
What’s more, according to an August study from California’s Chapman University, this year the number of absentee ballot requests from members of the military has decreased.
In one example, of more than 120,000 active duty military members and spouses in Virginia, only 1,746 had been requested. Similar numbers cropped up in North Carolina and Ohio.
According to the study, roughly two-thirds of military voters must vote by absentee ballot.
But McDonald warns against fixating on numbers too early before an election.
“It’s difficult to study where we are exactly in terms of participation levels,” he says. “Maybe people just aren’t as enthused as they were in 2008. Maybe they haven’t become enthused yet. Or maybe, we’re really just getting started.”