As the 2020 U.S. election looms, more Canadians are getting involved than ever. But should they?

As the 2020 U.S. election looms, more Canadians are getting involved than ever. But should they?
Every evening, as soon as he’s finished his work from home as a software engineer, Ravi Jagannadhan immediately logs onto another Slack channel.

Here, in the virtual campaign office for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, tens of thousands of volunteers give each other updates on their progress. While the majority are American citizens, some are foreign nationals.

This past Monday, Jagannadhan, who grew up in Toronto, posted: “Finished calls for now. 18 calls, 6 Biden (3 have already voted), 2 Trump, rest were hangups.”

A fellow volunteer instantly replied, “Excellent work, Ravi! You are making a difference! Hope to see you back here again soon!”

When the 28-year-old Canadian moved to California to work in the film industry in 2005, he had no intention to stay for long, let alone volunteer in an election campaign.

But the message of “hope” and “change” from 2008 presidential candidate Barack Obama inspired him to get involved. He faced no problems as a foreigner on a work visa to walk into the nearest campaign office and start making calls to urge voters to support Obama. He has volunteered for the Democratic Party each presidential election since.

U.S. law allows foreign nationals to do most routine volunteer work, including canvassing voters over the phone or door-to-door, but foreigners cannot donate any personal funds to campaigns or take part in decision-making processes. For example, according to the U.S. Federal Election Commission, “A foreign national volunteer may attend committee events and campaign strategy meetings, but may not be involved in the management of the committee.”

While these rules provide a lot of leeway for foreigners to get involved, experts say there has typically been reticence to volunteer in another country’s election. A flood of Canadian volunteers to the phone lines might raise questions of undue foreign influence and ethical concerns.

This year could be different.

“Canadians have always been very interested in American elections, but the Trump presidency has produced a level of agreement in their preference and intensity of concern that we have not seen before,” said Paul Quirk, a professor of U.S. politics at the University of British Columbia.

“I would expect an unprecedented amount of engagement.”

Jagannadhan, who is now a naturalized American and Canadian dual citizen, said this year he is actively trying to encourage other Canadians to do their part. He expressed discontent over how U.S. President Donald Trump has handled the COVID-19 pandemic , which has killed more than 200,000 Americans. In Canada the death toll is around 9,000.

“A president like Trump cannot govern in a world crisis,” he said.

In the last several weeks, Canadians have been contacting Democrats Abroad Canada, the Democratic Party’s official country committee, “daily” to ask how they could pitch in.

“We’re seeing tremendous interest from people who want to help and engage (compared to) previous years,” said Democrats Abroad Canada communications director Dianna English.

“They know this could be the most important election in our lifetimes,” she said.

Democrats Abroad Canada limits the kind of volunteering foreign nationals can partake in, however. Canadians cannot do phone canvassing or letter-writing because the organization doesn’t share American voters’ information with foreign nationals.

“Canadians volunteering with us help out with digital canvassing, to basically use their social networks to make sure that Americans and dual citizens in their communities know how to vote from abroad,” English said.

“We’re quite aware of the perception of foreign influence, so we try to be extremely careful and fall on the cautious side in terms of involvement to make sure it’s all appropriate,” she said.

The organization doesn’t collect data on volunteers’ backgrounds, but there has been a 33 per cent increase in general membership since 2016.

There were over 620,000 Americans living in Canada in 2016, and among this number only 5.3 per cent cast a ballot in the previous U.S. election, according to American federal data . This reflects a huge opportunity for voter growth.

For Canadian small business owner Barry Shecter, the stakes couldn’t be higher. If he could vote for his choice of an American president this November, he would “do so in a heartbeat.”

“Clearly in my mind, the U.S. is heading to an authoritarian government,” said Shecter, who put up Democrats Abroad posters around his downtown Toronto neighbourhood. He has also reached out to all of his American friends and acquaintances to remind them to register to vote.

“I think it’s still salvageable now, but if Trump wins this election, I don’t know if there’ll even be another election in four years’ time. As Canadians, we have an obligation to safeguard a functioning democracy in America,” he said.

Schecter now wants to do more particularly after the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sept. 18, which opened up a . He plans to contact the Biden campaign directly to ask if he could help with phone canvassing from Toronto.

According to a recent Pew Research Survey Canadians’ dislike of Trump has reached new heights.

Among Canadians, only 20 per cent expressed confidence in Trump to “do the right thing regarding world affairs,” a new low for a president. George W. Bush reached a previous low of 28 per cent confidence among Canadians during the Iraq War in 2007, while Obama inspired Canadian confidence throughout his presidency, trusted by 83 per cent of Canadians when he left office in 2017.
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