In the 2020 presidential election, members of Gen Z are projected to make up one-in-ten eligible voters. For the majority, this will be their time voting in a presidential election. Having seen two recessions in their lifetime and currently on track to be the most diverse voting group, they are a key bloc that can have a huge impact on the election outcome.
I spoke with a few of these first-time voters to gauge how they’re feeling about the election, the candidates, and their concerns for the future.
Joe Biden isn’t a perfect candidate.
For the majority of first-time voters I spoke with, Biden is their choice for president.
“This November, I am voting for Joe Biden because his experience in uniting people to address our nation’s challenges is exactly what we need in our current climate,” says Adrianna Williams, a Duke University student and national co-chair for Black Students for Biden. Williams was also featured in a national ad by Biden for President that premiered during the MTV Video Music Awards. She continues, saying, “Biden has proven himself to also be a leader who exhibits respect, decency and empathy. It’s time we brought that back to the White House.”
However, for many voters, Biden wasn’t necessarily their first choice in the Democratic primaries.
“I feel very proud of how diverse the primary field was in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, and political thought,” Isabel Hope, University of Alabama student, says. “Vice President Biden is not the candidate that I wanted to see represent Democrats, but I am happy that his team is listening to the voices of young people who are demanding better systems.”
Kate Dobbs at Rutgers University 2021, agrees. “Joe Biden is by no means a perfect candidate, however I am voting for him. He represents many of my political views on reproductive rights, racial equality, capital punishment, paid leave, and many other issues. I am pursuing education as a career, so the fact that he wants to boost teacher’s pay is very important to me as well.”
Instead, the choice comes down to getting President Trump out of office.
“I’m voting for Biden, but not because I support him — because I don’t. But I think his becoming president would be a much better alternative than Trump,” Olivia Day, a recent high school graduate, explains.
“President Trump has shown clear incompetence in governing and handling the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in the deaths of more than 180,000 people in this country. It is clear that Trump must be voted out of office in November,” Michael Dunphy, University of Maryland student, weighs in. “With that said, I am still disappointed in Biden’s lack of policy and vision to tackle the challenges our country faces. The party had the most progressive and diverse field of candidates for president, and Biden is sadly neither of those things.”
Many first-time voters feel they have to choose between two bad options, leading to feelings of frustration.
“I know that the most important thing at the moment is to remove Trump from office, and then reset the standards for what is acceptable regarding racism, misogyny, and homophobia.” Georgia Klein at Harvey Mudd College explains. “However, I want our federal government to make changes that are more radical than Biden’s plans. For example, I had hoped that the Democratic party had a clearer stance on universal healthcare.”
Klein also adds, “It is frustrating to see so many old people leading the Democratic party. I am excited to see more younger people gain power in the future.”
Not everyone is convinced Biden was the best choice. “I’ll keep who I’m voting for to myself, but I will say I feel embarrassed voting for who I am,” Justin Haas at Polk State College admits. “My overall feelings are that both candidates aren’t that good, and America loses either way.”
Similarly, some first-time voters were not convinced it was worth even going to the polls this year. “I’m not sure if voting is going to happen for me this year,” said a student at Ivy Technical School. “It’s hard when your choices are the better of two evils.”
This vote is personal.
In early August, Biden selected Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate, making her the first woman of color to be nominated for national office by a major political party. For some first-time voters, this decision struck a personal chord.
“Kamala Harris as potential VP makes this vote even more personal,” Williams says. “For centuries, womxn of color have been silenced, disrespected, and abused. I am proud to support a ticket where a woman like Kamala Harris will be in office.”
For others, Harris’s mixed record on criminal justice issues has cast a shadow on her historical nomination. “It is great seeing all of the ‘firsts’ with Harris being the first Black and South Asian woman to be on a national ticket, but her record as a prosecutor and the reaction from Wall Street on the pick draws concern from me,” Dunphy says.
People are scared of what will happen.
Students indicate that while they aren’t concerned with voter fraud, they have been apprehensive about voter suppression. “It has been shown that excessive blocks placed on voting, like voter ID laws, are ways to suppress votes from particular groups,” Dunphy notes.
“I think the defunding of the USPS makes it clear that Trump’s team are not afraid of blatantly rigging the election.” Aliana Potter, student at Hamilton College, says. “I plan to vote in person. Though I am not too worried about voting in-person during the pandemic because my town has very low cases.”
“I plan to vote by mail, and I do have concerns.” counters Day. “I want to vote by mail specifically because I want to limit my interactions with people as much as I can. But with all this stuff happening with the USPS and voter suppression, I’m scared of what will happen.”
The electoral college should be eliminated.
First-time voters have changes they want to see made to the current voting system, the most significant being the elimination of the electoral college. “I think the electoral college is unfair and that American territories should be able to vote in the presidential election,” Klein says.
Hope agrees. “I believe that the electoral college should be eliminated. I also believe we need to have automatic voter registration, vote-by-mail options, and I genuinely think that the voting age should be lowered to 16,” she says. “Other than that, I would love to see Election Day become a federal holiday. It feels fair.”
Others were more concerned about restrictions of the two-party system. “The two parties are ridiculous,” says Ivy Technical student. “I watched a YouTube video yesterday where a woman said she ‘could never be friends with a Republican.’ Why? Because they don’t have the same views as you? I can count on one hand how many times I had a genuine conversation about politics with my best friends. Not because we don’t care, just because we realize there are just some things we will never agree on. We’re still best friends. And for someone to let a political party change their views of a person without getting to know them makes me especially worried for this country.”
Also, you get a sticker.
Almost all of the first-time voters I spoke with were passionate about getting to cast their vote, and expressed hope that students on the fence will vote too. “Think about the privilege that you have in making the decision to not participate in choosing our next leader, as well as in your state and local government,” Klein presses. “So many people in America are harmed by the decisions of our leaders, and one clear way of making positive change is to vote.”
“I am voting because I want to do everything I can to give everyone equal rights and equal opportunity,” Dobbs said. “My vote is my greatest weapon at demolishing systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia.”
Daniela Harvey, a student at Goucher College, joins in: “Voting gives me a say. Some people don’t vote because they feel like the government has failed them (which quite possibly is true), but the problem with that is that they become passive watchers to more people that will fail them.”
“Voting is important as it is one of the best ways for you to influence what happens around you,” Dunphy adds. “Voting down-ballot is super important as local and state politics usually affect you more than national politics do. This was most clearly seen in how states handled the coronavirus pandemic and the differences in outbreaks by state in this country.”
And in the words of Hope: “This is life or death for all of us. Also, you get a sticker!”
However, some were still wary about the pressure felt to cast a ballot. “I don’t know if I’m voting, and I would tell other non-voters that I don’t blame them. It’s hard to send your vote for a third party when everyone says it’s a vote for their rival,” the student from Ivy Technical School said. “You shouldn’t have to feel a room to be able to talk about politics without the fear of being called out for what you believe in.”
Links in quotes were provided by the interviewee. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.