For Juana Ortiz, filling out her ballot on Friday morning was a special occasion.
The longtime Hermiston resident was voting in the U.S. for the first time, after becoming a citizen in 2016.
“I decided to vote because it’s a right we have,” she said in a mix of English and Spanish. “Your vote makes a difference.”
Though she knew how she wanted to vote, Ortiz needed some assistance with the process. She asked her teacher in Blue Montain Community College’s English Language Acquisition program to help her navigate some of the paperwork.
A former Hermiston Foods employee, Ortiz, who has been in the United States for 26 years, began studying at Blue Mountain Community College’s English Language Acquisition program when the facility closed last year. The program, which helps non-native English speakers of all levels improve their reading, writing, listening and speaking skills, offers information and assistance for students who want to become U.S. citizens. That includes assistance with filling out ballots and understanding the voting process.
Sharone McCann, an instructor at BMCC for 34 years, helped Ortiz with the process.
“We looked through the information, read through the candidates and measures,” McCann said. “Juana reads well, but even when you read well, it’s hard to understand.”
She said for some of the measures, she helped Ortiz break down what a “yes” or “no” vote would mean.
When it came to deciding how to vote, Ortiz made the decisions herself.
“She didn’t vote in front of me,” McCann said. “She took the ballot home and voted.”
Ortiz said the process to become a citizen took her about six months, but she had been considering it for a long time. Though she can speak and understand English, she took the citizenship exam in Spanish, as is permitted for those over 55 who have lived in the U.S. for more than 15 years.
Ortiz said she knows people who have said they don’t want to vote, or don’t see why it’s important, but she hopes to convince and help family and friends who may need help navigating the voting process.
“I want a place with good laws for my grandchildren,” she said.
Using data from the May 15, 2018 primary, Oregon’s Secretary of State office put together a breakdown of voter registration and participation by county, and by age group in each county. Umatilla County saw 10.8 percent of its 12,498 eligible voters ages 18 to 34 return ballots. Voter participation increased significantly with each age bracket, with 59 percent of the county’s 10,092 eligible voters over the age of 65 returning ballots. In total, 31.8 percent of eligible Umatilla County voters returned ballots for the May 2018 primary.
Though McCann said Ortiz was the only person who asked her for help this year, there have been others that have approached her in the past.
Ortiz said she is not sure what kind of job she’ll seek once she finishes the ELA program.
“Right now, it’s really important to learn and speak English for taking a job,” she said.
Tammy Krawczyk, director of College Prep at BMCC, said there are between 150 and 200 students in the ELA program for all the campuses.