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Why El Paso women voters are showing up in huge numbers at the polls

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Women were first able to vote in a presidential election 100 years ago, although initially this right was only extended to white women

A century later, El Paso women are showing up in massive numbers at the polls, dramatically outpacing men in early voting.

“With the women’s march movement and with what has happened in the last four years, I think women are realizing how dangerous our lives could become if we don’t participate,” said Carol Wallace, president of the El Paso League of Women Voters. 

Wallace thinks COVID-19 could be a galvanizing force for women at the polls. The impacts of the pandemic have been acutely felt by women in particular; among Americans who left the workforce because of COVID-19, 80% are women

“Women are the caretakers of their families. (COVID-19) is affecting them so much because they’re having to stay home and take care of their kids. They want their kids to be in school but at the same time they’re torn, they don’t want their kids to go and face being infected. I think COVID is one of the main reasons (for high voting turnout among women). Women are saying ‘No, we’re not going to take this anymore, we’ve got to stand up for our families,’” Wallace said.

In El Paso, women have comprised 55% of voter turnout so far, despite constituting 50.6% of the population. Through early voting, 49% of registered women voters have cast their votes, compared to 43% of men. 

El Paso Matters spoke with several women voters in El Paso about what issues are most important to them, how they are navigating this unprecedented election year, and why they think women are showing up in huge numbers at the polls. 

Noel Hollowell-Small, 34

Noel Hollowell-Small will work at a polling station on Tuesday to sanitize voting booths before and after each voter as part of the effort to make voting safe during the pandemic. “No matter which way you vote, we must keep democracy,” she said. “There are risks, but this matters.” (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Hollowell-Small is a Jewish Latina mother of two young children. She left her job at a call center as a result of COVID-19, in order to stay home and take care of her kids. She and her husband are both from California originally, but have lived in El Paso for nine and 15 years respectively. Hollowell-Small describes herself as “very involved in the community,” and will be volunteering at the polls on Election Day, cleaning voting booths. 

Can you describe your voting history?

I’ve voted since I was 18 pretty much. I’ve voted for Green Party, Republican, and Democrat (candidates). But this year, I went full Democrat. I wanted to vote for (Bernie Sanders) in the primaries and he really motivated me. Having consistent health care has been a struggle for my family, because it’s always been tied to our work or related to being on ACA. It’s always been a struggle for us to balance the books. Without going through our respective employers, it’s almost as much as our mortgage, every month. … I’ve been very motivated by health care to vote Democrat this year. 

I think a lot of people are surprised that I wasn’t always a Democrat. But it’s been my process. I voted for Mayor Dee Margo. I met him — I really liked him. But he’s not been very good for El Paso, which has been very depressing, since I voted for him. But you know, you win some, you lose some.

What primarily motivated you to vote this year?

It’s hard because I kind of had high hopes for Donald Trump. I was upset that he won over Hillary (Clinton), but at the same time I had high hopes that maybe he would shake things up a bit. But the way he has dealt with COVID was like the nail in the coffin for me. Because Biden isn’t really doing Medicare for All, which is what I really want. But my motivation turned to how terribly (Trump’s) done on COVID.”

Who were you most excited to vote for?

(State Rep.) Joe Moody. I love how he’s worked on helping his community. I was really excited to vote for him. I am excited to vote for Oscar Leeser because he’s done great things in the past and I feel like he will bring us back to where we need to be. Veronica Escobar, I love her. Those were the ones. I’m not 100% excited to vote for Biden, like I said I was a Bernie fan.

Why do you think women are showing up at the polls in El Paso at a higher rate than men?

I think the death of (Ruth Bader Ginsburg), I see a lot of motivation in that. I feel like a lot of women are waking up. When she passed away a lot of it was like, it’s our turn to hold up her legacy. A lot of it also is that we hear constantly that the future of our children is at stake in this election. How’s it going to look for our kids for the next four years. I felt like a lot of how we dealt with COVID really messed up parents being able to send their kids back to school.”

Margarita “Margie” Velez, 81

Margarita “Margie” Velez says her Catholic faith has a strong influence on her vote. (Photo courtesy of Margarita Velez)

Velez is a mother of five and grandmother of five. She has been retired since 2002, but was formerly active in the political arena, and worked as the regional director for United States Sen. Phil Graham. She also worked as an El Paso Times columnist. Lately she has been the caretaker for her husband and her son, both of whom are sick and undergoing dialysis. Velez said her Catholic faith has a strong impact on her vote.

What are the most important issues to you in this election?

Given the state of affairs, I’d have to say the economy — the way we are with what we’re doing with coronavirus, immigration, and I wish somebody would find a way to bring our country together. None of these people are doing it, it’s very sad.

Were there any candidates you were especially excited to cast your vote for this year?

(Velez chuckled.) There are no candidates that excite me, but some excite me a little less, so I voted for the ones that have a little bit more of a spark.

Were there any candidates who you were specifically voting against?

I could not vote for Kamala Harris. I could not, because I’m too conservative and she’s too liberal.

What are some of the issues that she’s too liberal for you on?

Abortion. I don’t believe in abortion. I believe in women’s rights, I just don’t believe that you can have the right to kill a baby up until almost the time of birth. That is very wrong.

Are there any issues in this year’s election that you think are of special concern to women?

Probably health care. Health care is probably the one issue that concerns women more than anything, and that would tie into the pandemic. 

Why do you think it would concern women more than men?

Oh I think it concerns everybody, but women more because  we’re the health care givers. We’re the ones that take care of sick people. I’m taking care of my husband and my son right now. 

Kierra Lopez-Robinson, 22

For Kierra Lopez-Robinson, an administrative assistant at IDEA Public Schools, 2020 is the second election cycle in which she has voted. Lopez-Robinson believes that it is important to make an effort to learn about issues and candidates before submitting a ballot. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Lopez-Robinson is a senior at UTEP, majoring in organizational and corporate communications with a minor in sociology. She works as an administrative assistant at IDEA Public Schools, and started a project called Readvolutionary this summer, a mobile library of free books about anti-racism and racial justice that she brings to Black Lives Matter protests and other community events. Her mother is a Latina El Paso Native, and her father is an African-American military veteran originally from North Carolina, who met her mother after he was stationed in El Paso. 

Can you describe your voting history?

I’ve sat out local elections since I’ve been able to vote. I turned 18 right before the 2016 election, so I did vote then — it was my first time voting, and then I was able to vote this time. 

How would you describe your political orientation?

I don’t know. I wouldn’t necessarily define myself as being liberal, but I’m not necessarily a Democrat either and I’m definitely not a Republican. I don’t necessarily like to align with a party because I know everyone has their flaws and all but I think the two-party system traps you, it confines you to certain ideals.”

What was your primary motivation to vote this year?

So that (Veronica Carbajal) could be mayor. (Lopez-Robinson laughed.) No truly, the presidential (race), that is super important to me too, but (the mayoral race) is more important to me than voting for president right now.”

Why?

Because I’m really tired of the way El Paso has been running, and this pandemic has just exposed (it) in such a terrible light.

What are the most important issues to you in this election?

Nationally, I think it’s the abortion laws. I personally have never understood why it was a conversation, just simply because I don’t understand how one can claim to be pro-life and worry so much about a fetus when they only are worried about those nine months, and then as soon as the baby’s born, the caring stops. We have too many children in foster care, too many mistreated children and nothing is being done for them. Even all of the immigrants being torn away from their families, if people are genuinely pro-life, something would be going on about that. So I feel like that is something that’s important to me. Locally, the first thing that’s coming to my mind is the climate change.”

Fan Chen, 46

Fan Chen voted for the first time in 2020 after becoming a U.S. citizen in September. As an educator, the issues that are most important to Chen are education, the environment, and supporting low-income and working-class families. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Chen is originally from Guangdong Province in China, and became a United States citizen in September of this year. She has lived in El Paso since 2001, was trained as a mechanical engineer, and currently works as a math instructor at El Paso Community College. She and her husband have two daughters, both of whom were born and raised in El Paso. For Chen and her 18-year-old daughter Grace, this election was their first time voting. 

As someone who has newly become a U.S. citizen, what did voting in this election mean to you?

Since this was my first time voting, it meant a lot to me. It meant I can exercise my right as a citizen in this country and have (a say in) the leadership. It’s really important for me. The day when I went to vote, I did not know that I would become so nervous. In front of the machine I was checking and checking and checking my notes to make sure I did not vote for anyone incorrectly.

My daughter Grace, we had been in lots of long conversations to discuss the candidates and what they believe. She even hand-wrote three pages of notes to me, and wrote down her opinion of who I should vote for and why; the reason why this vote for that person. My daughter knows me really well so she made a lot of points about the candidates, who she believes matched to my beliefs.

What are the most important issues for you in this election?

When I look at this country I really admire the opportunities and support that are provided to the low income families. I would like to support the candidates who are providing help or opportunity for low-income families and working classes. And providing safe and affordable housing. Also looking at the candidates that focus and emphasize education. Because I personally grew up in an educator family. In my family, generations and generations are educators in China. And this is the only country in my knowledge that is not valuing teachers. Teachers are treated badly, education was not respected, so that is another (thing) looking at the candidates: does this candidate respect education, support education, push education?

Why do you think there has been such high voter turnout among El Paso women voters this year?

I think that the women candidates are really encouraging (women voters) in exercising their right (to vote). I think that might be the reason (why there are) more women coming out to vote, because they see more (role) models. I don’t think this has happened suddenly, it’s just over years, there are many women’s rights movements like #metoo, but you can see that we have more and more women contributing to the discussion. I think that might be the reason.

Cover photo: Mother and daughter Fan Chen, left, and Grace Zhao both voted for the first time in the 2020 election. For Chen, this is the first election since she recently became a U.S. citizen, while Zhao voted for the first time after turning 18. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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René Kladzyk

René Kladzyk is a musician and writer based in El Paso. She performs original music as Ziemba, and has written for publications including Teen Vogue, i-D, and The Creative Independent. Her new album came out on Sister Polygon Records in September 2020, and she is hopeful that we’ll be able to enjoy live music together IRL again soon enough.

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