During the U.S. election campaign, many non-Americans said they wished that they could cast a vote. In the words of one Montrealer, “We should have a chance to vote since the outcome will affect my life as well.” A large number of people outside the United States did, in fact, have that chance – Americans living abroad. Since 1976, people holding American citizenship, even if they have never resided in the United States, have had the right to cast ballots in presidential and congressional elections.
American expatriates can decide close elections
More than six million Americans live outside the United States – only some 20 states have larger populations. And the largest single such group lives in Canada. In a close election, the 750,000 American voters in Canada could tip the balance, and indeed they may have in the 2000 vote in the state of Florida. However, no one knows how many such ballots are actually cast. In the 2004 election, the Pew Centre study of voting estimated that more than one million overseas ballots were sent out and 30 per cent were returned. But no records are kept as to where those ballots come from.
Faced with the real possibility that they could affect the outcome, both Republicans and Democrats mounted efforts to reach members of this group, register them and urge them to return their ballots. Democrats Abroad were especially active on the ground: currently the group has 12 chapters across Canada, which leads the world in registering expatriate Democrats. The Republicans concentrated their efforts in Toronto. The differences in their organizing philosophies are apparent in their membership criteria: membership in Democrats Abroad is open to any interested American living outside the United States; membership in Republicans Abroad requires a membership fee of $50.
Democrats Abroad effectively used the primaries and the Democratic National Convention as catalysts for recruitment. On Super Tuesday mega-primary day in the United States, a global online presidential primary was conducted for overseas Democrats. Americans in Canada could cast their votes for one of the candidates either at a polling location (for example, one poll in Montreal was at a downtown shopping mall) or online. In that primary, two thirds of Democrats Abroad voted for Barack Obama, one third for Hillary Clinton. At the Democratic Convention, Democrats Abroad were accorded voting status as a separate delegation.
Americans who vote from outside the United States cast their votes in a state in which they or their parents previously resided. Depending on the state, these votes can be crucial. For this reason some Americans practise strategic voting. An American abroad can vote in his or her place of prior residence, or where his or her parent last voted, or in his or her birthplace. For example one Democratic voter chose to vote in New Hampshire, a “swing state” where he last lived, rather than in his birth state of Massachusetts, which is solidly Democratic. Similarly, a member of the Republicans Abroad Canadian executive said that she intended to vote not in New York but in Pennsylvania because “my vote makes much more of a difference in Pennsylvania than New York, which is solidly Obama.”