29 First-Time Voters Tell Us Why They’re Going To The Polls

Natalie Gontcharova
·20 min read

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Americans, particularly young people, are on the frontlines of multiple crises this election year. Gen Z is facing disproportionately high levels of unemployment and underemployment, with education, careers, and families disrupted by COVID-19 and the ensuing economic catastrophe. Communities are experiencing a much-needed reckoning after years of police violence and other systemic racism. Climate change is a destabilizing daily reality, causing fear for the future and anger that most politicians are doing precious little to combat it.

For many, all this has translated into more enthusiasm about voting in the 2020 presidential election. For starters, we are likely to see many previous non-voters go to the polls: Experts predict a record turnout of 150 million, which represents 65% of eligible voters, the highest rate since 1908. This year, young people could wield significant political power, too. Millennials and over-18 members of Gen Z comprise 37% of eligible voters. According to a recent Harvard University poll, 63% of young people said they will definitely vote, compared with 47% in 2016. The same poll shows, predictably, that the economy and pandemic have moved to the forefront of young people’s minds. There is also unprecedented early engagement: Ten times more young voters have voted by absentee ballot or through early voting than at this point four years ago, 606,427 compared to 57,888, according to Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE). Among likely young voters, 60% support Joe Biden, which is up from 49% supporting Hillary Clinton in 2016, compared to 27% for Trump.

There is, as every year, a lot of hand-wringing about why “young people don’t vote” and questions about whether they will actually vote this year. For decades, young voters have showed up at the polls at low rates, with fewer than half of Americans 18 to 29 voting in the 2016 presidential election, which was particularly crushing after the Obama “youthquake” of 2008. But after Parkland launched Gen Z’s first political movement, the tide began to turn in the 2018 midterms, with 31% of 18-to-29-year-olds voting, a 50% increase from 2014.

Despite unprecedented turnout numbers, there are still a lot of young people who are not voting, whether it’s because they don’t believe that participation in electoral politics will make a dent in the multiple crises we’re living through or because they feel they have a lack of information on where Joe Biden and Donald Trump stand on key issues. Some reporting shows that it’s not as much apathy that keeps young people from turning out as logistical challenges such as being at college miles away from home and having a hard time registering from your dorm room — which is effectively voter suppression.

One thing’s for sure: After talking to 29 young and first-time voters across the country, we found out that no matter where they stand, they are anything but apathetic. Hear from them, ahead.

“I grew up in Section 8 housing, relied on food stamps, and used Title X to access birth control. My access to basic needs, and that of my family and community members, is on the line in this election. This isn't a game or a hypothetical for us. This is real life. I voted early for Biden. My mom received my ballot and over-nighted it to where I’m staying. I filled it out as soon as I got it and sent it back to her with tracking. She then hand-delivered it to a local drop-off center. We weren't playing this year. We need to stop with the narrative that young people don't care and that's why youth voter turnout is low. Voting is a habit built over time with lots of rules and regulations that are at odds with our often complex real lives. Stop shaming us and start meeting us where we’re at. I’m at an absolute 10 when it comes to excitement to vote. I withdrew from school in 2019 to work for our future VP Kamala Harris’ campaign. I’ve poured my all into this fight.” — Deja Foxx (she/her), 20, “I’m from and vote in Arizona, school at Columbia University in NYC, residing in San Diego, CA, currently staying in D.C.,” Gen Z Girl Gang founder

“This is a photo of me wearing my original artwork, with which I hope to evoke reflection on how people with uteruses are denied fundamental human rights and bodily autonomy. This administration is a clear threat to reproductive justice. They claim to be ‘pro-life,’ and yet enact violence on Black, undocumented, disabled, and poor children through underfunded social services and racist, classist policies. My artwork responds to this central hypocrisy. I am voting for Biden and Harris.” Sanna Legan (she/her), 20, Carnegie Mellon student from Los Angeles, Creative Director of AmplifyHerNYC, NextGen Pennsylvania fellow

“Biden wasn’t my first choice. Or second. Or third. But we MUST elect him because our rights are at stake. I refuse to live in a country where I am denied autonomy over my body, where sex education and birth control aren’t widely accessible, where there’s no access to safe abortions, where miscarriages are criminalized, where immigrant women undergo forced hysterectomies, and where Black women disproportionately die during childbirth.” — Natalie Held (she/her), 21, Boston University student from Connecticut, Communications Director for Boston City Councilor At-Large Julia Mejia

“I voted for Howie Hawkins, the Green Party candidate, purely based on policy. I just couldn’t vote for the awful candidates and terrible records of the Democrats and Republicans. I understand choosing Green may not accomplish anything, but I voted my conscience. I am hoping they receive at least 5% of the vote. As far as what I care about most, it’s a tie between Medicare for All and a Green New Deal. M4A would provide healthcare to everyone in the U.S. and save thousands of lives. I didn’t vote in 2016 because I saw both major-party candidates as people who didn’t represent me.” — Bailey (she/her), 24, Coralville, IA, student teacher for elementary education and part-time barista

“I am voting for Joe Biden not because I believe he will be a savior to my generation or that liberation from white supremacist and capitalist systemic violence will occur through the American electoral system. I am voting because I recognize the Trump administration as an existential threat to our planet and the livelihoods of most people. In a world where Trump is booted from the White House, I am excited to work together to reclaim political space and power as we continue the long-haul fight for a world where our families and communities can live sustainably and not have to see elections as a matter of life or death.” — Sunny Eimer (they/them), 19, Chicago

“As a survivor of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I do not want to see any other communities experience what mine did, which is why I’m voting for Joe Biden. In the months following the shooting, my friends and I mobilized to create the largest youth-led protest in American history, March for Our Lives. Later that year, we went across the country to discuss the realities and solutions to gun violence. This journey is documented in the film Us Kids. We have made some great strides in the last two-and-a-half years, but there is still so much work to be done and I will continue to make my voice heard until gun violence is no longer a reality.” Jaclyn Corin (she/her), 20 (today, October 27, is my birthday!), Harvard University student from Parkland, FL, cofounder of March for Our Lives

“I care about ending the gun violence crisis in America. An average of 100 people are shot and killed every day. Women are being shot by their intimate partners, LGBTQ+ individuals are being shot simply because of who they love, students are fearful that going to school may end in death, and people contemplating suicide have too easy access to a device that can end their life. There is no reason not to enact common-sense solutions that will save lives, and I choose to support candidates who are committed to ending this crisis, which is why I’m voting for Biden/Harris.”Megan Dombrowski (she/her), 19, Detroit, Wayne State University student

“I am voting for the incumbent, President Donald J. Trump, as I believe he is the best candidate in this election. I served as a U.S. Senate Page this past semester in Washington, D.C., during the impeachment trials. I also actively campaign for the Indiana Republican Party, as the president and founder of Allen County Teenage Republicans. I am overjoyed knowing I will be voting for a candidate I believe is needed to uphold the core values of the Republican Party. I am very open about my political views, and I personally love to have peaceful political discussions with anyone. Now I can finally say that I'm not just advocating for my beliefs and hoping to get someone else to vote, but I'm part of the future of the United States! The issue I care most about is making abortion illegal because my views have been developed on this issue based on my Catholic faith and from a moral point of view.” Ashley Martin (she/her), 18, Fort Wayne, IN, high school student

“I’m voting for Joe Biden. I see the dire importance of saving lives by replacing the current administration, which has mismanaged coronavirus, fueled white supremacist violence, and is idling on climate change. But I think the Democratic Party needs to be thinking a lot more progressively and energetically about healing this country and providing justice to people. Trump’s attacks on the postal service, as well as Florida’s constant attempts to disenfranchise voters, make me nervous that my mail-in ballot won’t be counted.” Malavika Kannan (she/her), 19, Orlando, FL, Stanford University student and author of The Bookweaver’s Daughter

“I was very involved in Students for Bernie and excited for his run. Biden’s campaign doesn’t excite me, but I’m very enthusiastic about getting Trump out of office. The issue I care about most is climate change. I’m from rural northeastern Wisconsin, where factory farms are polluting our water and air, making people sick, and taking over family-run farms that have existed for generations. Our economy has been hit incredibly hard due to Trump's trade wars.” — Claudia Schabo (they/them), 20, Ripon, WI, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee student

“I’m voting for Joe Biden. Unfortunately so many people didn’t vote in the last presidential election, and look at the state of our country. There are so many issues I care about. I care about the Black Lives Matter movement. I care about LGBTQ+ rights. I care about Supreme Court justices. I care about our environment. I care about Dreamers. Most importantly, I care about kindness and our democracy.”Maddie Ziegler (she/her), 18, Los Angeles, actor and dancer

“I am voting to make my voice as a woman of color from the heartland heard. I am ready to see a Black woman get a seat at the table, and I know Kamala Harris will help ensure more women after her are able to do the same and go even further. I know electing Joe Biden is not the cure-all and end to sexism and racism, but it’s the first step in the right direction. On the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote, I’m also excited to honor the people of color who fought to give me this opportunity.” — LyLena Estabine (she/her), 18, Harvard University student from Kansas

“I am an education voter. All the way down the ballot, from the presidential election to local school board seats, I vote for candidates who protect public schools, advance equity in K-12 education, and amplify student voices. I think it’s important to remember that we are not just voting for a president, but an administration. If he wins, Joe Biden will appoint a Secretary of Education who will keep public education public, fund schools equitably, provide flexibility around standardized testing, and protect marginalized students and students of color.” — Jenna Yuan (she/her), 18, Columbia University student from Seattle, part-time communications director at Student Voice

“The issue I care about most is COVID. I am asthmatic with a family full of people with preexisting conditions. The longer this virus is a problem, the more family members I might have to bury. I voted for Joe Biden early and in-person, and the line was over three hours long.” Evan Malbrough (he/him), 22, Atlanta

“I am the primary caregiver for my sick wife and the main provider for my household of five. I’m scared. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I have always been content minding my own business, working, going on vacation, celebrating life. I had never been fearful while doing my work and living my life, so I never felt the need to vote. My mindset changed when I watched the hearing with Christine Blasey Ford before Brett Kavanaugh became a Supreme Court Justice. Right after that, I voted in my first midterm election and started advocating for my mobile home park. This year, I voted down the Democrat ticket all the way. As a caregiver, I feel unprotected right now. I also can’t believe the injustice happening to immigrant families. My grandfather, after crossing over through Juarez, worked laying down railroad tracks and later became a farmworker. He became a naturalized citizen much later in life and mentored people who wanted to become American citizens. He is probably rolling over in his grave.” — Susie Rivera (she/her), 63, New Braunfels, TX, private caregiver

“Trump's rhetoric of distorting fact from fiction, undermining and censoring the press, suppressing opposition, indoctrinating that it is ‘patriotic’ to be blindly loyal, and undercutting the right to vote, is how Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba. I have seen the life my grandparents were forced to leave behind, I have listened to my family's stories and learned how fascist dictators come to power, so this election is terrifying to me as a Cuban-American. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are the best leaders to keep our systems of democracy in check and preserve our First Amendment rights.” Sofia Hidalgo (she/her), 18, Miami, middle-school math teacher through AmeriCorps

“I’m not very hyped up because I know Jo Jorgensen, the candidate I want to win, has basically no chance of winning. When people find out I’m voting Libertarian, they tell me I’m just wasting my vote. It’s a battle of attrition between the two major parties, and I know they don’t have my best interests in mind. I care most about income inequality and discrimination. As a Muslim, I don’t feel safe practicing my religion outside of Dearborn, which has the largest per capita Muslim population in the U.S. I stick out like a sore thumb and people give me dirty looks or worse. When girlfriends have introduced me to their parents, they have used my race or religion as a reason their daughters should not be with me. What happened to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?” — Jad Kawas (he/him), 22, Dearborn, MI, pharmacy student

“Although I haven’t personally had voting issues — voted by mail in California for Biden/Harris — I have talked to many people who have: I’ve been volunteering with a group called Knock for Democracy to call voters in swing states and help them form concrete voting plans. The conversations I’ve had have highlighted how convoluted our voting process can be. I’ve talked with people who have had lost or greatly delayed ballots and long early voting lines, as well as people who have had trouble finding reliable, concise information about candidates in their area. It has been incredibly rewarding to be able to help people through these difficulties, and taking concrete steps towards a positive future by phone-banking has lessened my anxiety ahead of November.” — Katie Stapenhorst (she/her), 21, Kenyon College student living in California

“The issue I care about most is the lives of our Black men and women. I plan on voting absentee, and I’ve had some issues. For one, it took my board of elections a long time to send my absentee ballot application. Now, I am still waiting to get my actual ballot in the mail. I plan on voting for Joe Biden.” — Bran’di Harrison (she/her), 18, Tennessee State University student from Columbus, OH

“I will be voting for President Donald Trump. Ever since I was little, I went with my parents when they went to vote and I was so excited. I could not wait until it was my turn to vote for what I believe in. My main reason for voting is to let my voice be heard and honor those who have died and fought for our country. The issue that I care about most is abortion and being pro-life.” — Makenzie Creach (she/her), 18, Hamilton, OH, high school student

“I'll be voting for Joe Biden. I'm not too excited. Having folks tell me that voting will somehow address this country's violent history with my people is disrespectful. People need to understand that voting is one tool, and there is so much more we can do to support Indigenous people. I'm voting locally because I'm worried about how rural Native communities here in Alaska will be affected by policies that will threaten our sustainable ways of life. I voted by mail. In Alaska, you're required to have a witness to submit your ballot, which is a large barrier to voting. Also when you first register to vote, your personal information like your address is made public. This is so dangerous, especially for folks who face domestic violence. And in a state where the missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis is very real, this barrier needs to be addressed.” — Charitie Ropati (she/her), 19, Columbia University student from Anchorage, AK

“I am voting for President Donald J. Trump. I recognize that the candidates may not be ideal, but my beliefs align the most with those of President Trump. I care most about his pro-life policies.” — Olivia Eagan (she/her), 18, Fort Wayne, IN, high school student, part-time worker at Subway

“Climate change is my main issue because in Houston, I see its effects every day in the floodlines on our fences. With Joe Biden, I am proud to vote for one of the most progressive environmental plans on the national stage. Given Gov. Greg Abbott’s extensive attempts to suppress voters by limiting mail-in ballot drop boxes to one per county and the ongoing court battles, it has been a huge challenge to vote by mail. In addition, there were lots of delays getting out sample ballots and a lot of county websites with voter information are difficult to navigate.” — Vidya Muthupillai (she/her), 18, Pearland, TX, high school student

“I am a full-time mom of three children, and I work part-time helping build political power in immigrant and refugee communities in Tennessee. I am from Mexico, where the democratic system is corrupt and broken, so knowing that I can vote in a stronger democratic system is exciting to me. I am voting for stronger protections for my community and a better future for my children. Who am I voting for? Obviously never, ever for Trump!” — Karina Talley (she/her), 33, Memphis, TN

“I might not be a ‘young’ voter, but I am a first-time voter. Because of my felony record and the fines I owed leaving prison a decade ago, I wasn’t allowed to vote until a pilot program run by Alliance for Safety and Justice and the Miami-Dade Public Defender’s Office helped me modify my sentence. Now, I’m voting because I would like to see people treated fairly, and I believe that I can help make that happen for other people who have been incarcerated. I’m grateful to be able to be part of history. I’m voting for Joe Biden.” — Carmen Brown (she/her), 65, Miami, works in the kitchen at a homeless shelter

“I cast my first ‘vote’ in elementary school: a button for John Kerry at our mock election. I was so excited to cast my first real ballot after becoming a naturalized citizen in September. Going from a noncitizen working on a presidential campaign to casting my first ballot for my boss was exhilarating! Joe Biden is a man of compassion and empathy. Watching him interact with voters and bring people together with hope and positivity has been such a blessing.” Lubna Sebastian (she/her), 23, Bethesda, MD, National Director of Students for Biden

“While I have my policy disagreements with both Biden and Harris, there is no doubt in my mind that both of them genuinely care for the American people and will push us towards progress. Democracy is on the line. While Trump spreads lies declaring vote by mail fraudulent and works with his appointed judges to suppress voters, Biden will fight to pass a new Voting Rights Act. When the president refuses to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, this is not the time to sit it out. The Trump campaign has engaged in multiple lawsuits attempting to suppress Pennsylvania voters. While they were ultimately unsuccessful, the uncertainty made voting inaccessible for many.” — Mimi Halpern (she/her), 18, Merion Station, PA, high school student

“I am undecided, although I am still excited to vote because this will be my first time voting in a presidential election. I am trying to understand the fundamentals of both parties. I don’t identify with any party, I just want to make an informed choice. I know that to get anything done with my vote at the moment, I have to vote either Democrat or Republican. However, neither candidate has made a lasting impression on me, nor made me feel secure in the things they are promising for our country. I have been reading the candidates’ websites to learn more about them and compare their stances on the issues.”— Iyanla Xo (she/her), 21, Virginia Commonwealth University student in Richmond, VA, leader with Supermajority Education Fund

“I’m voting for President Donald Trump. Politics is a vehicle for change in society and we must be engaged to ensure our conservative values triumph over what the radical left wants.” — Theresa Green (she/her), 31, will take office as County Commissioner in Whitley County, IN, January 2021

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