Nina Vallado was among the thousands of Clark County voters to cast their ballot for the first time this year.
She didn’t take it for granted.
The 25-year-old Battle Ground resident moved to the United States from Brazil when she was 6 years old. She watched the 2016 presidential election — the first she would have been eligible to vote in, had she been a citizen — from the sidelines.
“In 2016, it was a very helpless feeling, not being able to have my voice be heard,” Vallado said. “You have no say. You have no say in what immigration reform will be, you have no say in what the presidential administration will do.”
Vallado finally got the opportunity to apply for citizenship in September of 2019. Then COVID-19 hit, and she thought she might be forced to sit out yet another hugely consequential election.
“It was a long process. We did everything right, we checked off all the boxes, but it’s a long process,” Vallado said. “Obviously, you can’t go in to do your swearing in or your interview in-person, and my process kept getting delayed and delayed and delayed.”
To her disappointment, she ended up missing the primary election. But she was sworn in as a U.S. citizen on Aug. 19, after several years living in the country on a green card. Vallado recalled picking up a voter’s registration form on the way out of the immigration office.
“The next day, I submitted my voter registration to Clark County,” Vallado said.
In mid-October, she received her ballot in the mail. Vallado had done her homework, and she was ready.
“As soon as I got it, I had already gone through the voter pamphlet, I had highlighted everyone I wanted,” Vallado said. “It was a pretty surreal feeling, turning it into the ballot drop box. It took about 19 years to get where we are.”
New voters surge
Clark County saw a surge of new voters this year. A portion of that increase can be attributed to a rising population. Between 2015 and 2019 (the most recent data available), the county’s population rose by 6.9 percent.
But the spike was larger than that. Between the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, 52,446 people registered to vote, increasing the number of eligible voters by 19.2 percent. Past bumps between elections were smaller — between the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, the number of registered voters rose by 12 percent. The same pattern held true between 2012 and 2016.
According to Mark Stephan, an associate professor of political science at Washington State University, there’s not yet any hard demographic data on those first-time voters or what motivated them to turn out.
“We don’t have good information, but we can speculate with some sense of past patterns,” Stephan said. “It could be mostly the Trump effect, either commitment to or alliance with the president, or rejection of the president.”
An exit poll cited by the New York Times found that 14 percent of voters in the Nov. 3 election were first-time voters. Those first-time voters were twice as likely to go for Democrat Joe Biden — 64 percent of them cast their vote for Biden compared with 32 percent for Republican President Donald Trump. The national poll of 15,590 voters was conducted outside polling places and by phone to account for mail-in ballots, by the Edison Research for the National Election Pool.
“My gut tells me — and that’s not science — that a significant number of the votes are young people who just got fired up,” Stephan said. “Then there are also a certain percentage of these voters who have lived in Clark County for a while. They’re not younger, they’re older, but something activated them this year.”
Motivated by COVID-19
That was the case for a 32-year-old grocery store worker and lifelong Clark County resident, who spoke with The Columbian on the condition of anonymity because she worried how speaking about politics could affect her employment.
She said she started getting more involved with politics when COVID-19 hit and impacted her daily life. She started reading and watching more news to see “what everyone stands for,” she said. “Reading in between the B.S.”
“When the country shut down nothing changed for us. When people were supposed to be staying home, for me and my husband, it was like Black Friday for weeks,” she said.
She added that she plans to vote in future elections, though she’ll probably unplug from political news in the meantime.
“Just because it got really stressful with drama between me and my extended family, because I’m a Republican and they aren’t,” she said.
Starting a habit
First-time voter turnout is a relevant statistic, because data shows that once someone casts a ballot for the first time, they’re more likely to do it again. The Pew Research Center refers to registered voters as a “self-selected group,” already more likely to vote because they took the trouble to register themselves.
“If the rates of participation are up among young people,” Stephan said, “they’ll keep coming back.”
Vallado said she plans to vote in every future election. By now, she’s become a democracy-loving thorn in her friends’ sides.
“I’ve asked every friend of mine, ‘Are you registered?’ ” Vallado said. “I’ve really pressed a lot of my friends who didn’t want to vote.”
She said she’s voting for immigration rights, criminal justice reform and anti-discrimination policies. She’s voting for her family — for her parents, who aren’t citizens and can’t cast ballots, and for her sister, who lives with disabilities.
“I’m voting for everyone around me. My community is hurting,” Vallado said. “Obviously there’s ones that are personal, but I try not to vote for just myself.”