Election Season Is Wildfire Season. These Voters Lost Everything.
For 13 years, Erica Ramírez lived with her children in a house in Medford, Oregon, a small city in the southwestern corner of the state. It was a modest two-bedroom, painted blue with white accents. She’d saved up to purchase it after coming to the United States from Guatemala in 1993 seeking political asylum, working various jobs, often as an R.V. cleaner. On September 8, when the Almeda wildfire began north of Ashland and raged into the outskirts of her neighborhood, Ramírez was on a walk some 45 minutes away; she got a call alerting her and began running back, panicked about her pit bull, Rosie, who was still at the house. The roads were closed, and police blocked her entrance, but her son made it back. He got Rosie out and tried to use the hose to stop the flames. The house burned anyway.
“I worked for many years to get what I have, a roof, a home,” Ramírez told me. “I miss it a lot. All the memories that burned, the memories of my children, of my family, my whole family. We couldn’t rescue anything.” Ramírez is now living about a half an hour away with a friend who she used to work with and, for the moment, apart from her youngest son and seven-year-old grandchild. She is one of thousands of people who are now unhoused in the wake of the wildfires that, since August, have destroyed more than four million acres across California, Oregon, and Washington.
Officials in Jackson County, one of the eight Oregon counties named in the president’s major disaster declaration in response to the fires, estimate that approximately 3,000 people were displaced by the fires and around 2,357 structures were destroyed—three quarters of which were mobile homes where many elderly, Latinx, and immigrant communities lived. “Some folks are staying in parking lots and living out of their cars, even though we have the Red Cross,” said Virginia Camberos, the Rogue Valley Regional Director of Unite Oregon, an organization serving rural communities and people experiencing poverty across the state. Others are living with family or friends, in shelters, hotels, and other temporary situations—in some cases throwing “Covid out the window,” Camberos said.
And yet, despite the anguish and uncertainty, many are still thinking about the November 3 election and how to cast a ballot without a stable address. “Even though folks have lost their homes and all that, they say, How am I going to get my ballot? These are first-time voters,” Camberos said. “It’s so important to them.”
Ramírez, who became a U.S. citizen last October, is one of those voters. She told me that while a lot of information is readily available about wildfire relief and voting, very little is written in Spanish. This is her first election; she’s anxious about the process.
Navigating multiple crises at once has become a new kind of normal during the pandemic. In the face of a public health crisis, recession, mass devastation from wildfires, and an affordable housing crisis, community organizers in Jackson County are stepping up to fill in the gaps to support people like Ramírez, who have lost everything in the fire and are navigating a voting process made chaotic by the destruction. There’s an urgency to vote in spite of it: For many displaced residents, the election is still a priority—a small way to express their views on the glaring inequities that predated the wildfires and, without robust state intervention and aid, will only get worse in their aftermath.
Oregon became the first permanent vote-by-mail state for U.S. primary and general elections in 1998, following years of vote-by-mail trials. Though Oregon has comparatively high voter turnout rates —80.33 percent of registered Oregon voters cast a ballot in the 2016 general election, compared to 61.4 percent of voting-aged people who participated across the U.S.—and many of its residents are accustomed to the vote-by-mail system, the mass displacement from the wildfires has added a layer of complexity to ensuring people know how to receive a ballot.
Kate Titus, executive director of Common Cause Oregon, a nonpartisan public interest group, said that under Oregon voter registration laws, most people, with the exception of young voters or first-time voters, would have already been registered to cast a ballot in the general election. Displaced residents were given the option to list their temporary residence, shelter, P.O. box, or even the county election offices as the address to receive a ballot by October 13, and mail-in ballots were dropped off for mailing in Jackson County on October 16. “Where the fires make it complicated is if you’ve been displaced, either because you’ve just had your home and everything destroyed … or even if you’re temporarily displaced because of so much smoke or disruption in your community,” Titus said. “Those folks may be registered, but they’ve got their mind on many other things right now.”
Chris Walker, who’s served as Jackson County clerk since 2008, personally experienced the havoc of the wildfires when three of her family members and a significant other were forced to evacuate. “In my 55 years, I’ve never seen anything like this,” Walker told me. Watching much of the towns of Talent and Phoenix—where she grew up and went to high school, respectively—“literally burn to the ground, it was so emotional.”
She began to think about the importance of sending out information about wildfire relief and voting almost immediately, she said: “My mind went to: We have a presidential election coming up, we’re going to have to mitigate this. She sent a text to the Oregon elections director and a meeting for all county clerks was organized for the following Monday. Walker was concerned about getting information out more immediately to voters, who she says were already calling her office with questions.
“It’s been overwhelming, but we’ve tried to do whatever we can,” Walker said. “If you’re currently registered, we have many options until 8 o’clock election night to assist voters.” Over the next week, Jackson County came out with a social media campaign to inform people about the wildfire response and election information; statewide press releases with links to voter registration cards, absentee applications, and details about how to change a mailing address began to circulate. Information was also circulated across Oregon from the secretary of state’s office in the form of newsletters, press releases, and a Frequently Asked Questions page. “We worked with county elections offices and the USPS to coordinate so we all knew what people should be doing,” said Andrea Chiapella, legislative and communications director for the Oregon secretary of state, adding that the office worked with a number of agencies doing wildfire relief and outreach in affected areas to relay information to voters. “It sounds like people are getting the message.”
In the weeks since, Walker says thousands of people have changed their mailing addresses to receive a ballot elsewhere. And since the 2016 presidential election, the number of registered voters in Jackson County has increased by almost 20,000, according to Walker and data from the state. Still, the language barrier meant that many Spanish-speaking voters were left behind. Approximately 14 percent of Jackson County residents are Latinx, compared to an estimated 12 percent Latinx residents in Oregon. The newsletters and press releases from the secretary of state’s office were not translated, according to Chiapella; in Jackson County, information was not initially circulated in Spanish, but Walker later pushed for translation. (She told me that going forward she will advocate for her office to be “more aware and more conscious to get that information in both English and Spanish because it’s the right thing to do.”)
The community also stepped forward to ensure everyone who wanted to vote had the information they needed to do it: Camberos, with the help of volunteers and a youth leadership development group within Unite Oregon, made fliers in both English and Spanish that specifically provided information on crucial dates, deadlines for address changes, and other resources for wildfire survivors who wanted to vote. They put posters up around the county, asking Latinx businesses and markets for permission to post fliers.
Camberos says text messages and phone calls have also been effective in connecting with people and fielding immediate needs or questions about the voting process. In some cases, people have called to ask whom they should vote for, in which case the organization provides information on both candidates. However, Camberos said many people are straightforward about the Trump administration’s attacks on immigrants, saying, “We need to vote out this administration or this representative that’s not seeing the best interest of our community.”
Diana Ramos, a 19-year-old student at Southern Oregon University, joined forces with Project de La Raiz, a Latinx storytelling project, to assist as a social media intern and post key information about voting and community support efforts. Though the deadline to register to vote and to change a vote-by-mail address in Oregon has passed, Ramos is continuing to share Instagram posts, in both English and Spanish, paired with graphics and information such as a Jackson County voter guide. She wants to be sure people know how to vote if they were displaced, that they can find ballot drop-off boxes and have examples of how a mail-in ballot can be invalidated.
After coming to the U.S. 10 years ago from Mexico, Ramos made the decision last year, with her family, to become a U.S. citizen. She said it was an expensive, tiring process that took up most of her 2019, but she’s glad to be casting a ballot this year. “Being able to vote for the first time for a president is already something that I consider huge because my family has worked so hard to be here and for me to have this right,” Ramos said. “It is a huge responsibility because that vote is representative of not only the community that I am a part of but of my family, of those family members that don’t have that right to vote.”
The fire-affected people who can’t vote still have just as much at stake this election. “To have someone who is a climate denier, who wants to bring back coal and believes fossil fuels are not a problem is quite literally a death sentence, not just to humans, but to other life forms on this planet,” said Niria Alicia, a climate justice organizer who was born and raised in the Rogue Valley. Her father, who lost his mobile home in the Almeda fire, also faced the question of how to cast his ballot. “We’ve already seen how disastrous he has been in his disgusting abuse of human rights in detention centers in continuing to criminalize our communities, and climate refugees, who leave their home countries because they are literally displaced by the policies that this country enforces,” Alicia said of Trump. “It would be a great misrepresentation of our political power here to not be able to have our vote included in this election.”
Alicia is still concerned about people having reliable access to the ballot without stable housing. “I know that it is a big concern for my parents, for the elders in our community, for the children who have parents that have mixed status. I know this is very much present in our hearts,” she added. “We’ve been waiting for this moment since 2016, when we would be able to go back to the polls to vote him out.”
Issues of housing and health care have collided in the aftermath of the fires, with the number of Covid-19 cases across the state increasing as the winter months limit employment opportunities on top of a lack of affordable housing. Jocksana Corona, a 36-year-old drug and alcohol counselor and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient who has lived in the U.S. since she was four, lost her mobile home of 17 years to the fire and was forced to relocate with her family—including her husband, mother-in-law, 15-year-old son, 12-year-old daughter, and pets—three times in the last seven weeks. Corona is unable to vote, but her husband, who she says votes every time there are local or federal elections, is able to do so and filed a change of address; he got a P.O. box. The family is now staying in the Medford Girl Scout Shelter and seeking out housing elsewhere with six other family members, after a search for their own home was unfruitful, with houses in some cases going for $30,000 to $50,000 over asking price.
“There are many people who are in my same shoes—we work here, we live here, we’ve grown up here, we contribute to society, and we’re not allowed to vote,” she said. “I think that people who are allowed to vote and choose not to because they don’t think their voices count, they’re doing a disservice to everyone else.”
Ramírez is determined to vote for exactly this reason, all while applying for relief funds and looking for steady housing. She says she’s particularly concerned about issues surrounding immigration, health care, and education. “It’s very important because this government does not want us, does not want Latinos. I want a government that is a democracy, because democracy is important to guaranteeing people humanity, a better life,” she said. “I’m very depressed, and yet with the weight of everything, I still feel the need to vote. As a citizen, it’s a responsibility that I have.”
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