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First-time voters in Sandy, Estacada and Gresham share motivations that pushed them to participate in election

PMG PHOTO: BRITTANY ALLEN - Many voters rely on voters pamphlets and local news sources for information on ballot measures and candidates.

In a year when tensions are at an all-time high, more than 53% of Oregonians had already voted a week before election day.

Among the many regularly active citizens were several who have never voted in a presidential (or possibly any) election before, excited to cast their ballot for the first time.

For Sandy High senior Gavin Brown, 18, voting was an experience he surely wasn't about to take for granted.

"I think it was important because if you don't vote, you lose your voice," Brown said.

Brown said that even though in the end he voted along the same lines as his parents, he tried to form his own opinion on the presidential candidates by watching the debates and town halls.

"I didn't want to vote just for whoever my parents voted for," Brown explained. "I knew which party I was voting as."

"A main issue for me was how the candidates would handle the pandemic," Brown added. "Healthcare was also a big one. How they handled the debates was really interesting."

Brown said what he's learned in economics classes at Sandy High helped shape his opinion about which candidate's approach to healthcare he preferred.

"We've learned about how Obamacare is driving up costs of a lot of things," Brown said. While Brown focused mainly on the national race with his ballot this year, he plans to be more involved locally in the future.

"I think I did what I was supposed to," Brown said. "I think it's an obligation to vote."

Empowering Gresham youth

For Kayla Lopez, voting for the first time this year was an emotional moment. PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Voting was important for Kayla Lopez because it allowed her to stand up for those ineligible to cast a ballot.

A 20-year-old who grew up in Gresham and is now attending college at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., — Lopez wanted to weigh in on issues that are important to her. She was most interested in sharing her voice on immigration, Black Lives Matter, and women's rights.

"Being the daughter of immigrant parents, voting made me feel hopeful for the future," Lopez said. "I used my voice not only for myself, but for everyone who is ineligible to vote."

She said it is critical for young people to get involved and vote because they can help guide the change needed to ensure a bright future.

Sebastian Juarez-Castellanos, an 18-year-old graduate of Gresham High who is attending Portland State University and majoring in political science, saw voting as the culmination of 12 years learning about American democracy in public school.

"Many great people died for the right to vote here in the United States — the worst thing I could possibly do is not use it when I can," Juarez-Castellanos said.

He believes other young people should vote because the problems facing their generation aren't being discussed.

"The youngest elected official from Oregon in (Washington D.C.) at the moment is 63 years old," Juarez-Castellanos said. "If we vote, we show elected officials at every level that we do care and they should focus on us."PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Sebastian Juarez-Castellanos, 18, voted for the first time this year.

Both Lopez and Juarez-Castellanos were members of Gresham's Youth Advisory Council, a group that brings together high schoolers from the Gresham-Barlow, Reynolds and Centennial school districts to serve on a committee throughout the school year. The group meets with City Council regularly to offer a youth perspective on issues; empower their peers to get involved in the community; host projects like the mura paintings; and meet with legislators in Salem.

"It was helpful getting a glimpse of local politics," Juarez-Castellanos said. "(YAC) provided me with valuable insight that was very useful when filling out my ballot."

Lopez echoed the value of YAC in not only being an engaged voter, but in connecting with the region where she grew up.

"I think more people should participate in YAC because it's a way to be actively involved and make improvements to our surrounding communities," Lopez said.

Election time in Estacada

For Brooklyn Gath and Kayla Westman, both 2017 graduates of Estacada High School, casting their first votes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, conversations about civil rights and other events of 2020 felt significant.  COURTESY PHOTO: KAYLA WESTMAN  - Kayla Westman said voting in the 2020 presidential election felt powerful.

"My vote felt powerful, even though I know I'm one of many," Westman said. "Whatever outcome we get, there will be big change. I feel like people are really anticipating something good or something bad. There's been a lot happening this year, and a lot of tension."

Gath, who turned 18 just one month after the 2016 presidential election, was happy to see a high level of voter turnout this year.

"There's a lot of potential. I'm trying to be optimistic and believe the best will happen," she said.

Though there have been many conversations surrounding the presidential candidates, Westman said it was the local measures on this year's ballot that particularly stood out to her — including a $22.9 million general obligation bond to upgrade buildings in the Estacada School District.

"I went to Estacada High School, and there's mold in some of the rooms, and unfinished ceilings. These are factors I experienced firsthand for four years," she said, noting that voters said no to a bond for the district in 2016. "This year, it's absolutely needed."

"When the kids are able to go back to school, hopefully they can return to an awesome, updated building," Gath added. "(The bond) has been needed for a long time."

COURTESY PHOTO: BROOKLYN GATH -  Brooklyn Gath voted in her first presidential election this year. She turned 18 one month after the 2016 election. To learn about candidates and ballot measures, Westman sought out "online, unbiased sources."

"I like to base my ideas off factual information," she said. "False information gets spread so easily. It's easier on my mind to be sure my vote is based on facts."

Both Gath and Westman used ballot boxes to submit their vote, rather than mailing them in.

"(Having the ballot boxes and vote by mail option) makes it a lot more accessible for people," Gath said. "With COVID, I can't imagine having to stand in a line to vote."

She noted that when discussing the election with friends, one common theme that came up was disappointment with the choices on the ballot.

"I think we all wanted more from this election," she said. "We wanted bigger ideas and bigger candidates, but we're working with what we've got."

Westman said many of her friends are both "looking forward to and dreading the election results."

"We're not fear mongering or talking bad about different groups, but we're concerned about the changes being made, and want to ensure human rights and peace," she added.

Looking toward 2024

Sandy High graduate Christian Heldstab would've liked to have had his voice heard in this year's election, but unfortunately, doesn't turn 18 until Nov. 20.

In the future, Heldstab plans to let economic issues guide his voting — how candidates would address taxes and making things like insurance, retirement and housing affordable.

Heldstab looks forward to eventually being able to vote in the 2024 presidential election and local elections before then, and he sees people his age voting as highly important for their future.

"Voting is a deciding factor in who runs this country," Heldstab said. "Being able to vote opens up more freedoms to us as people. For our generation, the actions (people take), though they might not affect us now, will still affect our lives down the road. It's important for our generation to have a voice and a say."

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