Can the high early voter turnout among racialized voters in the U.S. translate north of the border? Canadians living in the States think so

Angelyn Francis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
·5 min read

Early voting in the U.S. among demographics like Latinx and Asian Americans surpassed the amount of votes cast in 2016. Could this election in the U.S. foreshadow an increase in votes from racialized Canadians when our own election cycle rolls around?

More than 95 million Americans had voted already in the 2020 U.S. election, as of Tuesday afternoon, which was already over 70 per cent of the total votes cast in the 2016 election.

Since 2000, Canada’s federal voter turnout has stayed between about 58 and 68 per cent of the total population.

The Star spoke with racialized Canadians living in the U.S., who say much of what has transpired in 2020 and since U.S. President Donald Trump was elected has fueled this huge early turnout. They think something similar could be sparked among people of colour in Canada as well.

Ravi Jagannadhan, who lived in Toronto before moving to Los Angeles, has been volunteering for Joe Biden’s campaign. The two events of 2020 that Jagannadhan points to in explaining the massive advanced voter turnout among people of colour are George Floyd’s and Breonna Tayor’s deaths and the uprising against systemic racism that has ensued. And the way COVID-19 has affected racialized people, particularly Black and Latinx people, a reality that is similar in the virus’s impact in Canada.

“It starts from the top down. You have to have a politician who can look at an issue and tell you how it’s going to affect you,” Jagannadhan said.

Jagannadhan says Canadians can learn a similar lesson in that there is a window during which you can cast a vote, but it’s after the fact that matters unfold and you realize the impact the election had.

“If you don’t participate in the process, and you don’t take the time to understand it, you know, when it affects you, it’s going to be too late. And there may not be anyone to help you.”

He also noticed the number of volunteers for the Biden campaign more than triple after Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in September.

The numbers in the national Slack channel where volunteers coordinate and log on for calling shifts went from 20,000 to about 40,000 people the weekend she died, with some volunteers logging on saying they were signing in for Justice Ginsburg. Now there are nearly 70,000 people.

“I think that was when people realized there was so much at stake,” Jagannadhan said. “You understand it on a subconscious level. And then all of a sudden, it breaks through.”

Amira Dhalla, a Canadian who has lived in New York for the last nine years, says even though she is unable to vote, this year she got involved anyway.

“This year felt a lot more like it was all hands on deck, so while not allowed to vote or donate to campaigns, this year was the first year where I didn’t let that stop me from participating,” Dhalla said in an email to the Star.

Dhalla said she thinks there might have been a sense of security in rights and freedoms among people of colour in the 2016 election, but with what proceeded over the four years since, she said, “I think communities of colour have really taken to the communities to work with others to have open discussions around elections and what’s at stake.”

From what she’s seen in her network online, she says the call to vote is rippling through Canada as well, with Canadians sharing posts about the U.S. elections, despite not being able to participate in them.

“I think that mentality will continue to ripple into Canadian politics a bit with a younger crowd that is eager to model similar voting energy,” she said.

Aliya Bhatia is now based in Brooklyn after living in Toronto and said she is feeling energized by the momentum building. “It’s like the one thing that we have right now (is) that people are coming out, and saying that we’re bigger than just our one self,” she said.

Bhatia worked on the 2015 federal election for the NDP in Canada. This year she collected census responses in the States.

She says that the question Americans are asking themselves about who to vote for even when the candidate of a party is not exactly who they wanted, could be coming to Canada. “I think this is really foreshadowing, because I think we’re going to have this conversation again in Canada very soon,” she said.

She also noted that while voting in Canada is less complex than in the U.S., it’s not without its own issues. Having volunteered in areas like Toronto’s Regent Park, she has seen barriers, like lack of awareness about how to vote without ID affect turnout.

Velma Morgan, chair of Operation Black Vote Canada, says between COVID-19 health issues, the racialized impact of the virus and the wide resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, there are parallels between the U.S. and Canada that could encourage voting among racialized communities in Canada in a similar way.

“I think we need to exercise (ability to vote) because we need to determine what type of government is good for us and our families,” she said. “And the only way to do that is at the poll.”

Angelyn Francis is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering inequity and inequality. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach her via email: afrancis@thestar.ca

Angelyn Francis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star