OTTAWA — Soon Jenny Wiebe will drive from her Fredericton home to the Maine town where she was born, to retrieve the mail-in ballot her parents are holding for her.
The 55-year-old dual Canadian-U. S. citizen said she hasn’t decided how she will exercise her franchise in the historic Nov. 3 American election. She may vote in person at the town hall in Readfield, a focal point of the community of about 2,500 where she grew up and sang in a Methodist choir, and to which she regularly returns, despite the pandemic.
If nothing else, her vote will accomplish one thing: it will break the electoral deadlock in her own family: she’s expecting her 82-year-old father to continue voting Republican, and her 80-year-old mother to vote Democrat.
“It’s a family joke,” said Wiebe. “But they’re both like, ‘Don’t worry, Jen. Your ballot is safe, right on the fridge. I’m watching it.’ “
Wiebe said she’ll support the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris ticket, but she’s also planning to vote for Susan Collins, Maine’s incumbent Republican senator, because she finds her a welcome voice of reason in the chaos that has characterized U.S. politics.
Wiebe is part of the growing wave of eligible American voters in Canada who are participating in an election that has shaped up as a referendum from afar on a controversial president, the Republican Donald Trump.
Measuring that participation definitively is difficult but Trump’s opponents in Canada are buoyed by what they see as encouraging trends. There are an estimated 620,000 eligible American voters in Canada, but in 2016, only five per cent, or about 33,000, actually voted.
Dianna English, the Canadian spokeswoman for Democrats Abroad, points to what her organization views as positive indicators: Canadian membership in the organization has grown by 90 per cent from 2016 to about 25,000 members. And the non-partisan Votefromabroad.org is seeing triple the website traffic from inquisitive foreign voters compared with 2016, up to about one million users.
Republicans in Canada point out that many Democrat votes will be cast in states the party won in 2016 and will likely win this time around. The largest number of Canadian-based American voters cast their ballots in New York and California, which the Democrats usually win handily.
“There would be no centralized area where we could find out where all these ballots went,” said Mark Fiegenbaum, a Toronto tax lawyer and chair of Republicans Overseas Canada.
“Any data that we get on how people are voting from Canada, in particular, would be surveying samples of people. And I would probably suspect, when you survey a bunch of people, that they’ll say they’re voting Democrat (but) we don’t know how they actually voted.”
Democrats are mounting a special effort to target the swing state of Michigan, which Trump won by a slender 11,000 votes in 2016. They believe there are more than double that many southern Ontario residents who are eligible to vote in Michigan.
Kathy Murphy lives in Windsor, but before the pandemic she travelled daily to Detroit to work as a paralegal.
“There’s easily 10,000 of us living here, and we could have taken Michigan,” she said.
Murphy’s daughter and stepson, both in their early 20s and living in other parts of Ontario, are voting in their first presidential election. She had them mail their ballots to her in sealed envelopes so she could forward them to the U.S. in one overnight courier package this past week.
“I couldn’t take the chance that we wouldn’t get them there in time,” said Murphy. “It was nice to have two new voters this year.”
Karen Hedetniemi, 56, has called Victoria home since moving from Washington state with her family in Grade 6. But it wasn’t until this past summer that she made her first attempt to vote in the U.S., when she applied to receive a mail-in ballot. She mailed it in late last month and has tracked it online.
“I’m voting for respectful and compassionate, informed and united leadership,” she said, while declining to name the candidate she chose. “I feel that there could be leadership that can offer that to the people, and the country would probably be a lot healthier.”
Fiegenbaum said Democrats clearly have a higher profile in Canada while Republicans “tend to be more silent.”
“I think people, a long time ago, made their decision,” he said. “I can’t imagine there’s undecided people at this point.”
Wiebe’s family in Maine bears that out to a certain extent.
Wiebe said she grew up in “an environment that was informed by both ideologies” and saw her family take an active role in local politics.
“I think pretty much at least three-quarters of my relatives vote Republican,” she said, and she doesn’t expect that to change this time around.
“It doesn’t have to do with Trump’s personality. It has to do with business interests. China. Smaller government. The perception that that’s a good thing.”
Jessica Sheridan, a Toronto-based Democratic supporter, said Canadians have a stake in the U.S. election and that makes it all the more important for Americans to vote from abroad.
“Canada’s democracy can actually be undermined by a neighbour to the south that does not have those same belief systems or values,” said Sheridan.
“We can’t see any more erosion as we have seen on the global stage. Canada needs a really strong ally, and so, for Americans who have that ability to vote, you need to exercise it. It’s a responsibility.”