Close U.S. election shows power of individual vote, Americans in Canada say

Published:  Wed, Nov 4th, 2020 1:28:48 PM

TORONTO — The closely contested U.S. election has brought home the power of the individual voter for Americans in Canada who hail from the handful of toss-up states that will decide who occupies the White House for the next four years.

As results trickled in from those key states on Wednesday, anxious expat Americans from those states watched the ongoing count with at least some degree of satisfaction.

“This is the first year that it feels like our vote really could matter,” said Staci Zemlak-Kenter, of Ottawa, who voted by mail in Georgia. 

Zemlak-Kenter, director of development at the Ottawa Jewish Community School, moved from Atlanta to Canada with her husband in 2016 a few months before the election that saw Republican Donald Trump unexpectedly rise to the presidency.

The several visits Trump and his Democrat challenger Joe Biden paid to Georgia, she said, put it firmly on the list of swing states.

 “It means that it’s a state that matters,” Zemlak-Kenter said. “It’s exciting to be part of that, and it’s also really terrifying.”

An estimated 620,000 Americans are believed to live in Canada although only a small number voted in 2016. Although it’s not yet known how many actually cast their ballots this time, it is clear from the last presidential election that they did have the power to make the difference.

The hotly contested state of Michigan, for example, went Trump in 2016 by about 11,000 votes — fewer than the estimated number of expats eligible to vote from Canada, many of whom live in Ontario. 

Kathy Murphy, a paralegal in Detroit who lives in the border city of Windsor, Ont., was one of the millions of Americans who voted by mail this year.

“My vote is actually being counted in Michigan right now, because my vote was a mail-in vote,” Murphy said on Wednesday.

The situation, she said, feels like 2016 all over again. This time, however, she’s cautiously optimistic the expat vote will have helped turn Michigan blue.

“I really think we will make a difference,” said Murphy, who has lived in Canada for about 27 years. “I had so many Americans who I talked to who didn’t feel like their vote mattered from here. But we still convinced them to vote (and) I’m hoping that today they’re feeling like their vote does matter.”

Still, with the complicated maths of the U.S. Electoral College system, which ultimately determines who becomes president, Murphy said it seemed likely Biden would reach the 270 votes, the exact number needed to take the White House.

She wasn’t betting on anything more than that razor-thin margin, raising the prospect of ongoing strife, especially since Trump has frequently blasted the election as fraudulent. He has also refused to say whether he would concede if the numbers don’t go his way, especially given the close nature of the vote.

“It won’t settle things, not with Donald Trump,” Murphy said if Biden gets 270 Electoral College votes. “He just thinks that he can make the rules and change the rules.”

In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court essentially handed the White House keys to George W. Bush, shutting out Al Gore, amid a dispute over the vote in Florida. Many observers said a similar scenario could repeat this year.

Zemlak-Kenter said she had hoped for a Biden landslide rather than having the courts decide the outcome. For the moment, she said, there was little she could do other than to keep an unwavering eye as the counting in Georgia and other swing states continued.  

“It’s just scary. I’m useless at work today,” she said. “We are concerned about how close the election is, and not only in terms of Trump being re-elected.”

Other key battleground states included Wisconsin, Arizona and Nevada, which has just six electoral college votes.

“If it really comes down to six, it also speaks to the power of the individual vote,” Zemlak-Kenter said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 4., 2020.

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press