Talk of the Town: New Citizens Voting for the First Time

A bright mural that says "Vote"
Photo by Jennifer Griffin via Unsplash.

The 2020 election has brought intense focus on newly eligible first-time voters, particularly 18-21-year-olds who are voting in their first presidential election, and also those who are formerly incarcerated. Another group of first-time voters includes immigrants who have gained citizenship in the last year. 

I chatted with three such first-time Oakland voters, who all became citizens in the last year, in part, to vote in this year’s presidential election. Dr. Janice Lord-Walker, originally from Canada, Gyorgy Vass, originally from Hungary, and Erika Ramirez, originally from Mexico, have all lived in California for two to four decades. Their motivations for moving to the U.S. range from escaping domestic violence to marrying a sweetheart to simply having the newly-found freedom to leave what had been an Eastern-bloc country, long under the political thumb of the then-Soviet Union. All three reflect on what led them to vote in this particular election.

Dr. Janice Lord-Walker/Retired Science Teacher and School Administrator

An African American woman with short grey hair sits at a table.
Dr. Janice Lord-Walker. Photo by Jamaal Walker.

Dr. Janice Lord-Walker moved here from Montreal to get married because had she remained in Canada, “my (then-future Oakland-resident) husband would have to work in French, which he did not speak fluently.”

After years of being a permanent resident through her green card and marriage to her American husband, Lord-Walker felt it incumbent to vote in this year’s election. Lord-Walker explains why she is voting this time:

“I always voted in Canada and I come from a politically active family, and I was politically active practically from birth, going to houses to register voters. 

Trump was talking about immigrants, about green cards. I have a son with special needs. I didn’t want anything to interrupt my interaction with my son.

Trump is not doing anything that looks presidential and isn’t doing anything to help homeless people, people of color, and has enabled white supremacists. I’m voting for the schools— I believe in education that is affordable. I think our educational system is unaffordable, I’m bothered by lack of universal health care. Between health and education, those really motivate me.

The issues that concern me in Canada are the same in the States: Black lives matter, about the injustices that have happened, what we’ve done to the indigenous peoples of Canada, and police brutality.

I voted for Biden/Harris, although I never thought I would be voting for Biden, but Harris has the attorney and senator skills. Biden knows the issues and he knows that he needs to deal with all with all ethnic groups. Something has to give.”

Erika Ramirez/Housekeeper/Dancer

A photo of a Latina woman wearing a decorative black and gold top takes a selfie
Erika Ramirez.

Erika Ramirez first came to the U.S. from Mexico City, Mexico at the age of 18 with her then 1-year old son in 1997 to be with her first husband, who had come here to work.

Ramirez had a visa for several years, but decided it was time to apply citizenship about a year ago.

“I was inspired to apply for citizenship because I love this country. I have more job opportunities. There is such a diverse population, people from many places, and more opportunities to take classes.” Ramirez is currently finishing her ESL classes and hopes to continue studying. “I would like to take the G.E.D. exam, get [my] high school diploma, and go to college.” Ramirez is considering studying psychology in college.

Reflecting on her motivations to vote, Ramirez refers to current unrest. “Violence is a problem in the cities. I am concerned that it will increase in the coming months. I hope we can have less violence in the country.”

Ramirez is voting for the first time in her life, having not voted in Mexico. “No, I never voted in Mexico. I was barely old enough [when I left] Mexico at the age of 18.” She notes that violence is also a serious problem in her homeland, as well as police corruption. After discussion with friends, Ramirez has decided to vote for Biden, and will vote in person on November 3rd

Gyorgy Vass/Musician and Guitar Teacher

An image of a man with grey hair holding a guitar.
Gyorgy Vass. Photo by Leah Vass.

Gyorgy Vass moved to the U.S. from Szeged (the “capital of paprika”), Hungary in 1990, at the age of 32. Vass explains how he fell in love with living in California, and felt compelled to vote for the first time in the current election.

“The first time I visited the United States in 1987, I fell in love with California. At that time, we needed a special invitation letter to visit any Western country; it was not easy to travel and be able to afford it. Returning home, I finished my diploma at the Franz Liszt University of Music in Debrecen. Communist rule in the People’s Republic of Hungary came to an end in 1989 and Hungary became a democratic regime and Soviet troops left the country. When the Berlin Wall came down, the whole country felt a true liberation. 

That year, I formed a guitar duo with a friend, and we headed West. We could never forget that elevating feeling that. Without the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall and a controlling government, we were free now. Still, the beauty of the California landscape, San Francisco with her beautiful bridges and diversified population were still calling me.  

The following year, in 1990, I came back again to study English. Piedmont Adult School, where I was studying English, offered me a job to teach guitar, later getting a job offer to teach in a private school. In 1996, I won the green card lottery and next year, I met my future wife and have been happily married since 1999.

I was never registered to vote in Hungary and never voted in my homeland. I grew up in a one-party Communist government. Generally, people, were not excited to vote, feeling that voting won’t make any major difference.  

In the last couple of years, there has been a lot of confusion, uncertainty, fear and crisis in politics. Not knowing what will happen next in the economy, health care, environmental issues and immigration policies, I felt the first time, I have to voice my opinion. The only way to do this, get my citizenship and vote.”

Vass plans to cast his vote for Biden/Harris by mail-in ballot.

Author Profile

Debora Gordon is a writer, artist, educator and non-violence activist. She has been living in Oakland since 1991, moving here to become a teacher in the Oakland Unified School District. In all of these roles, Debora is interested in developing a life of the mind. “As a mere human living in these simultaneously thrilling and troubled times,” Debora says, “I try to tread lightly, live thoughtfully, teach peace, and not take myself too seriously.”

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