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.”

In 2000 and 2004, elections were decided by narrow margins in key states, the results of which could have been decided by the ballots of some of the six million Americans abroad. George W. Bush won Florida by 537 votes and thus gained the presidency in 2000. “In 2000, the untold story was that the election was lost in Toronto,” said Ed Ungar, a member of the Democrats Abroad executive and former CBC producer, in a recent Toronto Star interview. He added that since 1960 five of the 12 presidential elections have been very close, with margins of victory of 2 per cent or less in the popular vote: “It’s almost certain in a tight election there will be several states in which an allegorical handful of voters can switch it.”

Kelli Wigt of the Republicans Abroad executive agreed: “There are tens of thousand of Canadians who vote in Florida. If every single American in Canada who is eligible to vote cast a vote, absolutely it would make a difference in key states like Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Florida.”

It was the 2000 Florida vote that drew the attention of the Democratic and Republican parties to the potential of the expatriate vote. Earlier, voters overseas – though not in Canada – tended to vote massively Republican. Information dissemination and recruitment efforts were limited mainly to those in the military, government workers and employees in large American companies. There were few attempts to organize either Republican or Democratic party groups. Today, active attempts are made to reach these groups; celebrities and politicians make special appeals to Americans “wherever they are” to vote. Recently Glenda Jackson appeared in TV advertisements in Britain directed at persuading Americans to vote for Obama. In Germany, members of the youth wing of the Social Democratic Party worked quietly on the sidelines with Democrats Abroad to encourage the 20,000 Americans living in Berlin to register to vote (and helped mobilize the 200,000 people who went to hear Obama). In Sweden, Democrats Abroad are active within the expat community even in non-election years, holding social and political events ranging from pub nights to public lectures to all-day clinics on how to obtain ballots. In a number of European countries, Democrats Abroad organized phone calls to voters in swing states urging them to vote, explaining the importance of the vote not just to Americans but to “the world.”

Both Obama and McCain made special appeals to expatriates. In what amounted to a policy statement, the McCain-Palin campaign made direct promises to this group, including:

  • strengthening the dollar so as to improve the economic security of Americans abroad;
  • fighting terrorism;
  • closing Guantánamo and “coming to a common international understanding” on matters of detention;
  • making absentee voting easier;
  • making U.S. social security more available to Americans living and working overseas;
  • clarifying issues to assure citizenship to children born to or adopted by American parents outside the United States; and
  • developing a method of including citizens residing abroad in the American census so as to take them into account in apportionment of representatives among the states.

It should be noted that these policies were not publicized within the United States, or in the foreign media. The Republicans largely used their traditional communication channels: American Chambers of Commerce, American embassies and American schools, as well as corporate contacts.

On the Democratic side, neither Obama nor Joe Biden made specific overtures to Americans abroad in the form of domestic and foreign policies tailored to their interests. Yet the Democrats appear to have won an overwhelming majority of nonmilitary votes cast from outside the United States. Living abroad colours how one votes. Americans abroad tend to evaluate their country from an international standard and, nowadays, are more likely to be critical, reflecting international opinions of the United States.

A BBC survey asked more than 22,000 people in 22 countries whom they would favour if they could vote in the U.S. election. Respondents supported Obama over McCain by a 4-to-1 margin.1 In Europe, Obama received overwhelming positive responses during his July tour. In Canada, there was massive support for Obama, Canadians generally being positively disposed to the Democratic Party (even though it is the Democrats that have been most hostile to NAFTA).

The exception is voters in Israel. Whereas American Jews living in the United States tend to vote Democratic, Republicans Abroad have been especially strong in Israel, building on the feeling that a McCain-Palin administration would give greater security to that country. Americans voting from Israel, like those in Canada, could potentially have great impact because of the high number of votes that will be cast in the highly populated swing state of Florida. According to Kory Bardash, chair of Republicans Abroad Israel, in the last election more than 1,500 people in Israel cast their votes in Florida (remember that the state was won by only 537 votes in 2000).

An important role played by volunteers from the Republican and Democratic organizations is to help absentee voters with paperwork and try to ensure that their votes are actually counted. They seek to overcome fears that the votes will be rejected for various reasons, since the voters never know whether they actually are in the tally. Indeed, given the patchwork of regulations, it can even be difficult to negotiate the process of getting a ballot. Election regulations differ from state to state. Some require the absentee ballot request to be notarized, some require that it be sent by mail under fairly narrow time constraints, some allow for requests to be faxed or emailed, some have a shutoff date early in September, some allow requests until the moment of the election itself. To simplify the matter, a Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot can be issued if a ballot that was requested does not arrive in time. But this emergency ballot is only a backup, and the voter has to have conformed with whatever requirements were established by the state in which he or she votes. There remains a suspicion that some states are reluctant to send out absentee ballots and that absentee ballots in some states are rejected for questionable technical reasons.

Canadian expatriates barely register

The United States is not the only country in which expatriate voters play an important role. In the 2007 French presidential election, candidates Nicolas Sarkozy, Ségolène Royal and François Bayrou all opened campaign offices in Montreal to battle for the 33,000 registered French voters in that city. Sarkozy, the ultimate winner, even launched YouTube videos specifically aimed at expatriate voters. In Canada, however, the situation is quite different. Few Canadian citizens vote from abroad. In the 2006 election, only 9,208 votes were cast from outside Canada, and there is no reason to think that the figure has increased since.

Not surprisingly, no political party has taken steps to reach what is in fact a large expatriate community – estimated at around 800,000, with 250,000 in the United States and Hong Kong alone. Since the fewer than 10,000 votes cast are divided among Canada’s 308 federal ridings, they cannot be expected to make a difference. Hence parties have no incentive to mobilize expatriates. There is no Conservatives Abroad, Liberals Abroad or NDP Abroad organization. As Karl Bélanger, senior press secretary to NDP Leader Jack Layton, replied to a query posed by a reporter for The Embassy, a newsletter directed toward civil servants working abroad, “Obviously voters here, who are more likely to follow the day-to-day action, are a bigger priority,” It’s up to absentee Canadians to use the party’s website for information, he added.

In the same interview, the Liberal Party’s senior director for organization and outreach, James Anderson, expressed the fear that other parties would copy his party’s strategies. In an email communication to The Embassy, Anderson claimed the party did have an outreach strategy for attracting expat votes. Similarly, Conservative Party spokesperson Ryan Sparrow asserted, “We have specific ways of , but we won’t release how we campaign with them.”

The secret strategies of Canada’s mainstream parties remained so secret that this researcher could find no evidence of their existence. But it is not only the lack of interest and effort on the part of political parties that accounts for the low number of votes cast by Canadians abroad. The way Canadians conduct elections remains a hindrance. Not having a fixed election date as the Americans do means that it is very difficult to mount a “Get out the Vote” campaign. An unexpected five-week campaign such as the one Canadians just experienced does not give Canadians dispersed throughout the world time to become knowledgeable about how to vote. Moreover, since they vote only for their MPs, they have to learn and remember the name of the candidate to write into the absentee ballot for their riding (the name of which they must also learn), or the vote will not be counted. The American voter can just vote for the preferred presidential slate.

Moreover, while Americans face no residency requirement, Canadian citizens who have lived outside the country for more than five years, with certain exceptions such as those in the military or national or international bodies, lose their right to vote. Prior to 1976 the United States had a residency requirement, but this was deemed a violation of the Bill of Rights. It would seem that a similar challenge could be made in Canada, because the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (section 3) states that “every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein.” But so far no senior court has been asked to rule on this matter, an indication perhaps that expatriates place limited importance on this right.

A final obstacle to Canadians voting abroad is the application process. Canadian voters from abroad not only have to indicate that they reside in Canada, or intend to reside there in the near future, but there is a much great emphasis on establishing legitimacy. In contrast to the American application, Canadians are required to submit various documents along with proof of identification. (Ironically, in the United States voters in most states must produce photo identification, while this is less frequently the case for those casting an absentee vote). The voter is then sent a voting kit, which includes instructions and a special envelope to ensure the “integrity” of the ballot. This must be returned by mail. Only some Canadian embassies or consular offices will accept the ballot. The onus is on the elector to obtain the initial form, return the form with requisite documents, get the ballots and return the ballots by 6 p.m. on election day. With unfixed election dates and a much shorter campaign than in the United States, it is no wonder that Canadians seldom vote from abroad


1    The countries surveyed were Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, China, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, Nigeria, Panama, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Singapore, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. Support for Obama was weakest in Poland and India.