Greg Benavides doesn't take his responsibility as a voter lightly. Even now — as an adult with a child of his own — he still calls his mom on Election Tuesday.
“We don’t take it for granted,” he said. “Many of my family members moved here from other countries and were so happy to be able to vote. It’s just the way that we’ve connected. My aunts, when myself or other family get together, they would always remind me and my cousins and even second-generation cousins, that ‘Tuesday is coming up.’”
Born and raised in Los Angeles County, Benavides is the third of four siblings. His father — now retired — is an outgoing, structural mechanic who often took the family on camping trips. His mother volunteered at the local schools.
Both parents instilled the importance of hard work, empathy, and social connection in their children.
“She really taught me the community side of life,” Benavides said of his mother. “How to build community and how to interact with people. I remember we didn’t have doors on our bathrooms at school as kids. So my mom organized to help us get doors on the bathrooms.”
Benavides will draw on his formative years as well as his career in public service in his new role as the County’s voter education and outreach specialist. He’s charged with helping historically underrepresented communities as well as young people and voters who haven’t cast a ballot in a while — vote in 2020. He will work with the Multnomah County Election team to triage questions from the public about the upcoming election.
“Part of being an outreach person is you need to be able to create a message that’s relevant to voters, and also just learning their names,” he said with a smile.
“It’s about having a bi-directional conversation. So if someone for example says, ‘My vote doesn’t count,’ my question in response is ‘Where did you hear that?’ and then I begin a discussion on how negative connotations surrounding voting came about.
The only way to do that is through conversation — having a bi-directional conversation.”
In college, Benavides studied marine biology, working with fish and algae. He even received a degree in marine biology from California State University Long Beach.
He worked at an environmental consulting firm contracted by Los Angeles County Public Works. As part of the consulting work, he joined a conservation project for a wash mitigation area in Big Tujunga, north of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley.
The project was in the midst of urban communities and blocked access to a busy, well-used patch of land.
“There was lots of consternation building among visitors, from equestrians to hikers to families who visited the nature area — many who were unaware of the conservation work underway,” Benavides said.
Hikers were unhappy about the restrictions on access and other changes.
“There were also unusual ownership issues and distrust for officials and feelings of exclusion. There were even incidents of racism in the area. It was a challenging project.”
Benavides was charged not only with creating an outreach campaign to inform users about the need for the conservation work — preserving fish and wildlife — but also to instill a sense of stewardship for the unique landscape.
He created a visual, bilingual guide that he shared with people using the space. He stopped to talk with park users. He listened and developed connections. He asked people about their families and what was important to them.
A year after the public campaign launched, a local family who used the nature area shared the significance of some of the fish in a nearby pond with a crew of project employees.
“It was a rewarding affirmation,” said Benavides. “Just to know that what we shared had been heard and that there was a sense of ownership. I knew that I wanted to talk to people — to be able to distill information that they may think isn’t important to them.”
Benavides’ career path led him to more consulting and education work. Recently, he worked for Portland’s Bureau of Transportation, educating the public on the Bureau’s permit program for events that require closing streets.
“We learned certain ZIP codes were not participating in the program,” he said.
“Those communities, when I spoke to them directly, brought up three issues: They had no idea that there was a program like this; they weren't sure that the program was for them; and they weren’t sure if a permit was affordable.”
But, through engaging in inclusive, bi-directional conversations that took people’s backgrounds into consideration, Benavides helped build community comfort around a lesser-known program.
“My job wasn’t so much to give them a menu of items about the program,” he said. “It was more about asking them about their needs and what’s important to them and then letting them know about the options available.”
Benavides will bring a similar approach to Multnomah County Elections. He will serve as a hub of information for newly registered and longtime voters as well as those who may not have cast a ballot in a while.
Vote-by-mail alongside the 2016 Motor Voter Act; online ways to register or update voter registration; even paid postage for return ballots (which takes effect this year) has helped set Oregon Elections apart. The number of voters has increased since 2016 and voter turnout has also improved. But there are still voters — particularly those in historically underrepresented communities — who haven’t cast ballots.
“My job now is [asking], ‘What have you heard about voting? What concerns you? What election issues are important to you? What are your perceptions about voting?’ I plan to answer questions like, ‘Does my vote matter? Are there security issues with voting in general?’” he said.
Benavides will share information about Oregon’s vote-by-mail system and the paper trail the ballot leaves as it moves from being cast to counted. There’s the signature verification process to the bipartisan teams that open and process ballots, he said.
The bipartisan teams “separate the envelopes from the ballots and follow a procedure that ensures the secrecy of the ballot,” he said.
He will also share information about the County’s stand-alone ballot-counting system — located inside an isolated room and disconnected from the internet or any other network.
“You can come in and tour the elections building and see the ‘life of a ballot,’” he said. “Where it starts and where it ends and the checks and verifications that occur, from dropping your ballot in the mail to being counted.”
Benavides will drive home the importance of voting not only in the outcome of elections but also in deciding who runs for open seats.
“We have a primary coming up — a closed May primary. Voters need to know that if there’s somebody they want to support, your registration should match that candidate’s party.”
He also plans to issue a personal challenge to voters who haven’t cast a ballot in a while. “Try it once,” he said.
And for young voters, considering whether they should vote or not: “Voting is habit forming,” he said. “There’s research to show that if you vote at the earliest opportunity, it’s likely you’ll vote in future elections.
Oregon Law even allows voters to register at 16 to vote at 18.
“I want voters to be aware that they play an important role.”
“It’s not about politics, it’s about access — just like the hiker who wonders why we’re changing the trails — it’s about helping them understand why and becoming stewards of the land.”