Opinion

Braving 'expatriate shaming': Why this dual citizen living in Canada won't vote in U.S. presidential election

There's been a push to get Americans living in Canada to cast a ballot in the Nov. 3 presidential election, and choosing to decline can generate friction, writes Stephen Strauss.

Many taking issue with choice not to cast a U.S. election ballot from Canada

U.S. Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden, right, and U.S. President Donald Trump speak during the presidential debate in Ohio on Sept. 29. There are more than 600,000 people living in Canada who are eligible to vote in the U.S. election. (Patrick Semansky/The Associated Press)

This column is an opinion by Stephen Strauss, who came to Canada as a Vietnam War objector in 1968 and has dual U.S.-Canadian citizenship. Since 1971 he has worked as a journalist, usually covering science, and is a past president of the Canadian Science Writers' Association. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

I have been walking around these days asking myself with only half a smile whether there is some morphed version of the Canadian national anthem which declares: "True expatriate love in all thy sons and daughters command."

I am doing this because I have been regularly experiencing what you might call expatriate shaming.

There's been a push — no, make that a shove — to recruit Americans living in Canada who are eligible to vote in the Nov. 3 presidential election to become part of the electoral process. Knowing I was born in the U.S., my friends, neighbours and relatives will ask with a semi-desperate twinge in their voices: "Have you registered to vote in the U.S. election?" And when I say I am registered but I do not plan to vote, they get very angry.

Given what has been going on under President Donald Trump, they exclaim, how can I even think about not making a difference by casting a presidential ballot? (By the way, no one assumes that an expat could possibly vote for Trump, which is interesting.)

They don't listen when I answer that I am not voting because, after more than 50 years outside the U.S., I don't feel it is my country anymore. Inside my heart and inside my mind I have become Canadian.

As a Canadian, I believe some things many Americans don't: that the soul of good politics is compromise; that peace, order and good government are more sane national ideals than life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I wait for the light to change before I cross the street. I hate winter but love snow.

I am a Canadian.

And so I explain to people who try to shame me that my voting in the U.S. election wouldn't be an expression of who I am and what I believe in, but would be almost an act of expatriate treason.

If my vote really had a genuine effect, if that single ballot decided who became president, I would feel guilty in relation to all those who not only voted another way, but who live in the United States. Because who would want their national election decided by a cross on a piece of paper made by someone who never again plans to live in the U.S., who feels like he is visiting an alien place when he does visit, who sees America as a "they" and not an "us"?

An ad from Democrats Abroad Canada, an organization hoping U.S. citizens living in Canada will vote in the upcoming presidential election, is seen on a bus in Windsor, Ont. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

Yes, I have voted in some – not a lot – of the U.S. elections. In one, I asked my Canadian neighbours who they would want me to vote for, and then cast a kind of surrogate ballot in their interest. In retrospect that seems almost a comic act, and as such I wouldn't (and strongly believe I shouldn't) ever group vote again.

I also voted for Barack Obama, but that was not so much a political act as a religious statement. I had never dreamed a Black person could become president in my lifetime, and when it seemed possible, I sent ballots to the U.S. invisibly marked with hallelujahs and amens.

I say all of this to my critics, and they both don't hear and don't care.

It isn't enough that I don't feel like an American, that I don't live in the United States, that my children and grandchildren have been born here. I have been sternly told that even if I no longer emotionally, intellectually and politically identify as an American, I have to vote in the U.S. election to save the world from a Trump-astrophe.

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And at that point I generally switch over to the pragmatic and cynical arguments.

I say my one vote isn't going to decide the presidential election, because it would be cast in a state that no one thinks is going to support Trump. And that even more to the point, there has never been a U.S. presidential election decided by a single ballot. So my "X" isn't an expression of the power of a vote. My "X" is just a scribbled shrug. I tell them it is statistically almost the definition of political futility.

And at that point people get even angrier at me.

They tell me that what I am saying is not only traitorous to any notion of democratic decision making, but is an enabler of presidential plutocratic evil. They see me not as someone with genuine expatriate voting principles, but as, well, a terrible human being.

And I don't know what more to say at that moment. If believing the U.S. is not my country anymore, and if believing any ballot I would cast would not have any effect on the election result are unacceptable reasons for not voting, then I will simply say that in a democratic country there is also the right to abstain from casting a ballot. That act doesn't make a person bad; it makes them free.

And as a free man I will reiterate what I have said above.

I do not believe that I should vote in the U.S. presidential election, and even if I did, I do not believe my single vote will save the United States.

The U.S. must save itself, or not – without any guidance, help, advice or direction from this Canadian.


About the Author

Stephen Strauss came to Canada as a Vietnam War objector in 1968 and since 1971 has worked as a journalist, usually writing on science, for a number of publications including The Globe and Mail. He has also worked as a freelancer for media including CBCNews.ca, and is a past president of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association.

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