Five First-Time Voters on the 2020 Election
These students tell us why they’re voting, how they stay informed about candidates and issues, and what it’s like to vote for the first time during a global pandemic.
There are many myths about youth voters: They’re supposedly “apathetic” or simply choose not to vote.
But the truth of the matter is that despite the many barriers that stand between youth voters and the ballot box, young people have always been passionate about making their voices heard.
Now, as voting in the 2020 election gets underway, millions of Americans born after 1996, known as Gen Z, will have the chance to share their voices by voting in a presidential election for the first time, making their priorities and top issues clear through their choices.
Youth voter turnout hit record numbers in 2018 and it is expected to do so yet again in 2020, in large part because of Gen Z. In one youth poll by Harvard, 63 percent of respondents indicated they will “definitely be voting,” compared to 47 percent in 2016. Youth voter engagement organizations are also reporting record high voter registration and engagement numbers going into November. We spoke with five Gen Z first-time voters, high school seniors and college first-years, to hear—in their own words—what voting means to them. These voters share what it’s like to prepare to vote for the first time during a pandemic, how they’re staying informed, and the issues that matter to them most in this historical election.
Nateka Miles: High School Senior in Camden, New Jersey
How do you feel about voting for the first time?
Voting for the first time makes me feel excited because it's something I always wanted to do.
What kind of civics education did you receive in school?
I feel like I'm prepared because my school has taught me--they're big on voting: You must always vote no matter what, even if you don't agree with the person. Even if you don't like the person, you should still vote because your vote matters the most.
Even if you think it doesn't, it does. They tell us it doesn't matter who you vote for, just make sure you and the person you're voting for both see eye-to-eye on the same things that you both want.
Did this education help prepare you to vote this November?
I'm totally confident in everything that I'm doing. I didn't need much help on trying to register to vote or anything of that sort.
What are you doing to encourage your family members and friends to vote?
Most of the people I see with this election, most of the people don't really agree with either candidate, but I'm still trying to encourage them to, even if you don't agree, you should still vote. Even if you might not really like it or you don't think your vote matters, it does in the long run. I'm trying to persuade everybody to go out and vote. You don't think it matters, but it does.
I know for a sure thing that my friends are totally all on board with voting. We're telling everybody to vote. We're not playing. You need to vote. You must vote.
But on my family's side, I'm not too sure because I know a person who doesn't vote at all. I'm still trying to convince them, "You have to vote," and they're like, "No." It's just negative, and I'm trying to open up and tell them you must vote even if you don't want to.
How are you voting this year? Are you going to be voting in-person or by mail?
This year, I'm not too sure. I feel as though I want to do it in-person. I don't know... Yes, I think I'll do in-person. I feel like being at home and just voting by mail is like, ugh, I'm really not doing much. Let me go out and tell everybody, "Hey, vote, and have a good day."
Do you know where your polling place is? Do you know if there will be long lines at your polling place?
Yes, it's easy to get to. It's down the street from my house at a local school nearby. I'll go there. I don't see very long lines because there’s a lot of local places for people to go vote. They don't want too much of a crowd, and I feel as though since there’s COVID, there should not be a line.
Do you have any advice for first-time voters?
I think that generations coming up should know you should always vote. You're the next generation coming up. You guys matter the most. Everybody else before us, they had their time. Now, you are the future, you must vote. Your voice must be heard. We don't want to be silenced. You must be heard, basically.
Tarina Ahuja: College Freshman in Boston, Massachusetts
Why are you voting?
I'm voting because, one, it's my responsibility, and two, because our democracy, our nation is on the line. I am of the belief that all of us have the power to make change. We've had our ancestors who have fought for this right.
I'm the daughter of immigrants. My mom immigrated here, fleeing a totalitarian regime in Iran. My dad immigrated here from New Delhi. We're all Punjabi in ethnicity. For me, if they made all of these sacrifices to come to this nation, it is my duty to help make the nation better. That's strongly what my belief of patriotism is. It's not blindly following what the country has set out for you, it's fighting to make it better.
How are you encouraging your community to vote?
In my community, I've done voting drives at my gurdwara (temple) in the past. I'm a Sikh, which is a religion from Punjab and a huge part of my identity. I’m just trying to give back to my community in that way because so many of them made sacrifices to come here.
So just making sure that they have everything they need to register to vote and to get their ballots, whether it be reaching out to my family, my grandparents, having this type of event at our gurdwara—which is a temple—or working within our school to get people registered. Given today’s virtual climate, I’ve led various Get Out the Vote phonebanks to directly work with people trying to register and get their ballots.
How are you educating yourself on not just the presidential candidates, but local candidates and ballot measures as well?
For a long time, I didn't even realize the importance of local and state elections. I was like, "Oh, yes, I'm so interested in federal politics," but really taking a look at the impact of state and local, that's what affects us most every single day.
They make the legislation about roads, they make the legislation about our education, about health care, and so it's so vital to educate ourselves on that. I think the ways I've been doing it is whether it's working with different council members near me, or legislators near me, or really just doing the research, calling their offices, looking at their websites, and understanding the gravity of those things.
How will you be voting? And do you feel confident about it?
By mail. I'm going to be voting in Virginia. I'm currently in Massachusetts, so I'm getting my ballot here. Of course, we heard all of that news about the postal service, and so it is a bit nerve-wracking to make sure that we get our ballot in time, but I requested mine this morning [in late September]. There's this tool that if you look up, track my absentee ballot, and then your state, you can see exactly where it is. I just saw the city in Virginia that my ballot is in right now and I was like, "Okay, it is on its way, and it's coming." Having that peace of mind like, "Okay, I have it, it's on its way."
While it is nerve-wracking, I'm trying to do everything I can to make sure I do get my ballot in a time that will be able to get me to vote and get it sent back in time. While it would have been fun to vote in person for this election, I am still excited to be able to just get my ballot and send it back as soon as I possibly can.
What advice do you have for first-time voters?
All of us have so much power as individuals, as human beings, and I think it's just a matter of getting out and using that power. I know there are so many people right now that feel so disillusioned by the system.
That is completely fair and completely valid, thinking about how sometimes we fight so hard and we don't see the results that we want or that we thought we'd get. But it gets to a point where we think that our voices don't matter, and that isn't true. Elections, whether it's local, for your city council members, for your state legislators, or for these referendums where your voice is literally the voice that is deciding this measure, your voice really does matter. While it's easy to think that it doesn't, it does.
[In addition to being a student, Tarina Ahuja is an activist. She is the co-founder and president of The Greater Good Initiative, a youth-led policy think-tank and also serves as co-founder and director at Young Khalsa Girls.]
Taveonna Mills: High School Senior in Indianapolis, Indiana
How do you feel about voting for the first time?
I'm nervous about voting because I've never voted before. I've never been to a poll before.
What kind of civics education did you receive in school and do you feel like it prepared you to vote in this election?
The civics ed that I received in school is political science class Y103, a college class that I took to prepare me and teach me the importance of the election and voting.
Are you voting in-person? And if so, do you know where your polling place is? Do you know if there will be long lines?
I'm voting in-person. I know where I'm voting, yes, but I don't know if there have been long lines. My grandma, she goes to where I'm going to vote and she normally wakes up six in the morning when the polls open to go vote. I'm not sure if there are huge long lines. I'm hoping not, though. I’m going to vote with my grandma.
Are you politically involved or involved in activism?
Well, I'm not involved in activism, but I recently became interested in the Black Lives Matter movement because I did a speech over it so I had to do research over it and it really interests me. I did it for a college class and I'm hoping when I go to college to become more engaged in the Black Lives Matter movement.
How are you encouraging your friends and family to vote?
I feel like instead of me encouraging them, my family and community are more encouraging me to vote since I'm 18 and my generation is going into the next election. My grandma, she always asks me, "Are you going to vote?" Or, we sit down and watch the presidential debates together.
What advice do you have for first-time voters?
One vote can make a big difference in our community
James Bills: High School Senior in Indianapolis, Indiana
What issues are top of mind for you when you vote this November?
The issues that are important to me are to actually make a change for the citizens, to bring us together and support us and not divide us and tear us down.
What civics education did you receive in school and how did it prepare you for the upcoming election?
I took a government class last year for a semester and basically the big topic that was covered was voting and how important it is and how it's one of our responsibilities as citizens.
What are you doing to encourage your family to vote?
My mom brought it up to me and asked me about voting and registering [to vote.]
How are you staying informed about local candidates and ballot measures up for vote in your area?
I see a lot of stuff on social media and my family also talks about it around me, so I'm hearing it. But I don't really know much about local elections at this point.
How are you involved politically?
A couple of years ago, after the Parkland shooting, I participated in a school walkout to support gun control against gun violence.
Are you voting in-person or by mail?
I’m voting by mail.
What should people know about Gen Z as voters?
What I think is that we are the future. People my age have the longest lives to live in this country. It's important we vote so that we start creating the society that we want to live in.
Andrew Waddle: College Freshman in Pike County, Kentucky
How do you feel about voting for the first time?
It's, honestly, so nice to be able to vote. The feeling of actually being able to take part in our democracy is so nice, especially during times like these where everything is so heavily charged.
What are the issues that are important to you in this election?
For me, it all really comes down to human rights and similar topics, especially around Louisville right now.
Specifically speaking, the Black Lives Matter movement and issues with the LGBTQ community, like with the court case that just happened in Louisville, and all of the protests going on. A lot of my political beliefs are focusing mainly on that and who stands strongest in that situation.
What kind of civics education did you receive in school? Do you feel it prepared you to vote, or did you have to go elsewhere to get information about voting?
During classes, there wasn't really much current voting type of education that I got. I'd say I had maybe a unit or two, but most of it was based on the history of voting. I never really had a civics class. I'd say I learned the most about what I believe in, and how to vote, and what I'm doing to vote from a teacher outside of class.
He was my human geography teacher. He has helped me a lot in the sense of showing me how to get my ballot, helping me understand my options for how to vote this year, where everything is, when all the due dates are. He's even helped me by giving me different unbiased ways to look through politics.
What are you doing to encourage your family members, friends, and others in your community to vote?
A lot of my family don't vote because they don't like politics, which I've understood because it's like politics is very polarized in the sense that it's like, if you vote for this person, somebody's going to judge you based off of that. I've just been very active in the sense of making sure that everybody knows you don't have to share who you voted for. That's especially something that you don't have to do.
Another thing I've been doing is sharing what my human geography teacher has shown me about how to receive ballots, different options. I've been making sure that everybody I know on campus and off-campus knows how to be able to vote this year.
How are you voting this year? In-person or by mail?
This year I'll be voting by mail, where I am a good four hours away from home. I decided not to make that trip for the in-person voting. I'm currently awaiting my absentee ballot.
How are you educating yourself about not just the presidential candidates, but local candidates and ballot measures up for vote in your area?
My way to educate myself on all of these different candidates is, I like to go on to their personal social media pages, see what they post there because—even if it is run by somebody else—usually it will be some insight into what they believe.
A lot of times, I just like looking at their live speeches and anything that they've come out and talked about. Maybe how they particularly campaign against their enemies, whether it's a type of thing where they're attacking them, or whether they're just talking about their own beliefs.
I’m just trying my best to stay away from that mainstream type of biased media because I know how easy it is to fall into the category of just listening to whatever news outlet you watch or listen to, and just go in along with them. I've just been trying to focus on getting my own information, and sorting through it myself.
Is there any advice you have for other first-time voters?
When you get to vote, especially for your first time, vote for what you believe in, not what everybody else in your family believes in, just because you were raised in this political party and you only believed in this while you were growing up. When you get to actually vote yourself, go do your own research.
See what you actually believe in now that you can partake in this ability to vote. You should see the other side of it, just to see, "Maybe this means more to me than what I was raised with." That's just important to me.
Teach For America is a 501(c)(3) nonpartisan, nonprofit organization and does not endorse any campaigns or candidates for public office. Recipients of AmeriCorps funding, including most TFA corps members, are prohibited from engaging in political, voter registration, and census activities while charging time to their AmeriCorps grant.
We want your feedback. Share your thoughts on this story or suggest other stories for us to pursue.