Jack Knox: In ‘51st state,’ Democrats push to get out vote

Among the more than 600,000 potential U.S. voters living in Canada, some lean Republican.

Conventional wisdom says they’re a relative rarity, though, like Boston Bruins fans in Vancouver.

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Up here, Democrats dominate.

That’s why, with just three months to go before Donald Trump comes up for re-election, a Victoria-based group of Democrats has been feverishly working the phones, trying to get out the vote. “If we could harness all of those voters, just in Canada, we could have a tremendous effect on the election,” Giles Hogya says.

Ohio-raised Hogya, now retired from his job as dean of fine arts at UVic, belongs to the local chapter of Democrats Abroad, a group campaigning hard for the absentee votes of the estimated six million Americans who live outside the United States. In contrast to Canada, which until 2019 barred its citizens from casting ballots once they had been out of the country for five years, the U.S. actively encourages Americans who live beyond its borders to vote. The Democrats even treat them like a 51st state, with their own delegates to this month’s convention where Joe Biden will be consecrated as the party’s presidential candidate.

Most of the potential voters in Canada are, like Hogya, dual citizens. Greater Victoria alone has more than 6,200 U.S.-born residents, include two members of Parliament, Elizabeth May and Randall Garrison. Many don’t consider themselves American at all; note that in the 2016 election, just 5.3 per cent of the estimated 622,492 Canadian-based voters actually cast ballots.

Some argue that’s as it should be, that you should only hold allegiance to one flag at a time. (Remember the fuss over Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s reluctance to give up his U.S. passport?) The counter-argument is that dual citizens are affected by tax and pension policies in both countries, so merit a voice.

There’s also the argument that if a power like the U.S. wants to exert influence over the rest of the world, then it can’t complain when the rest of the world wants to weigh in. It isn’t just dual citizens and ex-pats who get involved in American politics. Maple syrup-bleeding Canadians do, too. In 2012, a Victoria man who erected a pro-Obama billboard alongside the Pat Bay Highway earned a couple of complaints but about 100 offers to help pay for the message.

U.S. election law prevents the latter from playing much of a role in Democrats Abroad, though. Non-Americans — usually the spouses of members — can attend chapter meetings, but may not vote or hold a leadership position or do much else. Nor will U.S. law let the group accept donations or gifts of services from non-Americans. “We’ve had people say ‘we’ll give you free meeting space at our restaurant,’ or whatever, and we have to turn them down,” Hogya says.

In any case, Hogya says the Democrats Abroad Victoria-based chapter, one of nine across Canada, is thriving. “Our membership on the Island has tripled. There’s nothing like Donald Trump to bring them out of the woodwork.”

It seems every time Trump does something alarming, whether springing his jailed political cronies or muttering about trying to delay the election, more local Democrats get involved.

“People are highly motivated,” Hogya says. “What’s at stake is democracy itself.”

Local volunteers just finished phoning 1,500 people, mostly on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, urging them to vote and explaining the process: foreign-based Americans can apply for ballots from the last U.S. state in which they lived. That’s where their votes will be counted, too. It’s a bit complicated in that each state makes up its own eligibility rules. Some allow foreign-based Americans to vote only in the federal races — for the presidency, the Senate or the House of Representatives — while others, like New York and California, open the entire ballot, meaning someone in Saanich can help elect the sheriff or judges in San Jose. Hogya recommends votefromabroad.org for more info.

It’s not the local dogcatcher races that interest the Democrats Abroad, though. They’re trying to affect the outcome in the White House and Congress. Don’t forget the 2000 election when George W. Bush won Florida by just 537 votes of the six million cast, earning him Florida’s 25 electoral college votes, just enough to become president.

That’s the sort of thing that gives the Democrats Abroad nightmares — and allows them to dream of making a difference. Note that they just had half a dozen Nanaimo-area artists colour in postcards that will be sent to Vancouver Islanders whose votes would be counted in swing states.

“People here are fired up,” Hogya says.


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