Dinamarie Jackson-Wiley is a political science student at Laney College who takes her civic duty seriously. “All my life I’ve been waiting to vote,” she said. She’s nineteen years old, and today, November 4, 2014, she cast her first ballot. She said it’s important for her, as a student of politics, to participate in the election. “I actually have to step in and do my part,” she said.
Chardonnay Hightower-Collins, a sophomore at Mills College, was also excited to cast her first ballot. “I think especially voting on the local level, you can make a big impact,” she said, “and I felt like my vote counted.”
New voters, particularly young people and college students, have been in the spotlight in recent presidential elections. They were an important part of President Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012.
But for this year’s election these voter blocks appear considerably less riled up. Turnout for midterm elections in Oakland is usually low, and young voters and new citizens both tend to vote in lower proportions than other demographic groups, especially in midterms. In the 2010 midterm elections, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, only 23 percent of voters aged 18-29 and 37 percent of naturalized citizens voted, compared to a national average of 45 percent.
“I’m not sure if I should vote,” said Laney College student Michael Richard, who recently moved here from Florida and said he had not registered as an Oakland voter. “I really don’t know what’s going on here.” Feeling uninformed and disengaged was also cited as a reason for not voting by some of his fellow students. “I don’t want to put effort into it,” said Ryan Wallman, 18. “I’m trying to do other things, like stay in school and work on football.”
Extra challenges, like language requirements, can make it harder for naturalized citizens to register to vote. But these didn’t stop Sushila Gurung, who is originally from Bhutan but came to Oakland after spending 17 years as a refugee in Nepal. She voted for the first time in her life today at St. Anthony’s School in East Oakland.
“Maybe it’s hard for me, because it’s my first time,” she said. But she felt it was important, she said, to help choose a mayor who could make Oakland safer. She was robbed one night coming back from school, at 9 p.m., in her own neighborhood. “That’s why I really like to vote,” she said. She did not provide the name of the candidate she had supported, but said it was someone who had promised to reduce “the violence and robbery things here.”
Besides the mayoral race, the minimum wage hike was also an important issue to many first time voters, including Gurung’s cousin, Shova Gurung, and Jackson-Wiley. “As a working student, I need all the cash I can get,” Jackson-Wiley said, and she added that Measure BB, the proposed transportation fund tax increase, would directly impact her.
First-time voters probably won’t decide the outcomes of today’s election, and this year’s midterms likely won’t go down as a turning point in Oakland’s history. But for everyone who voted for the first time, this year’s election is a day they won’t forget. This is especially true for Ben Oigara, who moved here from Kenya in 2001. He was an election official in his home country, but this was his first time voting in the United States. “I’m so happy to be voting today,” he said.
Jackson-Wiley felt the same. “Today’s the first day I voted,” she said. “This is going down in history for me!”
Additional reporting by Deana Mitchell.