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5 Students Talk Voting for POTUS for the Very First Time

youth voters
Two years ago, thousands of youth protesters marched on Washington, D.C., and around the United States to protest gun control. This November, many of those same young demonstrators will be voting for president for the first time. Noam Galai/WireImage

I'm a mother of two daughters — one 20, one 16 — and I've been taking them to the polls with me to vote their entire lives. I remember taking my oldest daughter, Isabella, in her car seat for the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. She was just a couple of months old, and because our address changed, we had to visit three polling locations before I found the right one. Luckily, she was a good baby.

Recently, Isabella and I got the chance to vote together for the first time during the presidential primary in Atlanta. Afterward, we posted a photo on social media, of course. But young people Isabella's age haven't always had the right to vote in the United States. It wasn't until July 1, 1971, when the 26th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, that the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18.

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It grew out of protests that started as far back as World War II. At that time, people were demonstrating under the battle cry "Old enough to fight, old enough to vote." But the voting age wasn't actually lowered until major protests against the Vietnam War, the draft lottery and the fact that men as young as 18 were being drafted but couldn't vote.

That time, they were successful in getting the 26th Amendment ratified. It states:

The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.

Today social media networks are filled with young people offering political opinions, but the United States has a historically low rate of turnout among young voters, according to Rock the Vote, which has been working to empower young voters since 1990.

While 18- to 29-year-olds are interested in politics, statistically, they don't turn out to vote as much as other age groups. Will the 2020 election be the year that changes that? We talked with some first-time presidential election voters to find out what's driving them to the polls.

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Olivia McCoy, 20, Kennesaw State University, Psychology Major

Olivia McCoy
"If you can vote, vote." — Olivia McCoy
Olivia McCoy

Olivia McCoy isn't new to voting — she cast a ballot in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election. But November will be her first time voting for U.S. president. She plans to vote in person because she attends school (currently online due to the coronavirus pandemic) in her home state.

"I feel like if I don't vote, then I didn't do my job as a citizen due to the political climate," McCoy says. "It makes me feel like an adult. I actually feel able talk about politics and have a say so in it."

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There are numerous issues of significance to her, like immigration, education, student loan forgiveness, how the U.S. is perceived globally and the pandemic. But she doesn't see one election as a quick fix.

"It's going to take more than 20 years to fix racism and how we feel about immigration, and how we feel about the use of our money; what are we paying taxes for," she says. "In the future, I honestly feel like we'll be going through the same issues, sadly, just in different forms."

Nevertheless, she stresses the importance of voting, in part because some people say that voices like hers never mattered and others sacrificed in order to change that. "This is the election for you to show your appreciation of what the people before us fought for," McCoy says.

"You hear a lot of people saying my vote doesn't count, but as a black woman, you really have to understand the position that you play," she explains. "At this point in time, it's pretty much life and death. This is going to be the rest of our lives."

Chloe Sparwath, 20, University of Virginia, Foreign Affairs Major

Chloe Sparwath
"You're voting for your future." — Chloe Sparwath
Chloe Sparwath

A member of the College Republicans and UVA chapter president of the conservative women's group Network of Enlightened Women, Chloe Sparwath says she worries that Americans are so fired up over various issues and blaming problems on the country and its foundations that there will be a push to get rid of the institutions and foundations the country was built on.

"I'm a huge government nerd," Sparwath says. "I love the Constitution, and I love the Bill of Rights." Although the country may not be perfect, she says, people might not realize that the trajectory may lead from debating political issues to debating whether the country should remain.

"It's important for everybody to vote because so many people have fought for this right for us," she says. "No matter what you think of politicians these days, it's still pretty special that we get to choose our leaders when a lot of people don't."

Plus, voting is cool.

"It's really cool to vote in a presidential election, and I'm excited to cast my vote in Georgia, which is my home state," Sparwath says. "We're at a really critical time; I guess people probably say that with every election."

She says social justice issues are top of mind for her generation, while she believes guns, which had been an important focus, have taken a backseat to the Black Lives Matter movement.

"Never has the youth been so informed on so many different issues, or at least think they are informed," she says.

Sparwath says she will be voting by absentee ballot because she is in Virginia for school, even though her classes are all online due to coronavirus. Sparwath, who has volunteered in the past for several senators, says the pandemic has made it more difficult to continue in person, although she plans to get more involved with Georgia races via phone banking.

"It's made political clubs have to reevaluate," she says. "Engagement is somewhat down. It's a weird time."

Mercer Butts, 20, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Animal Science Major

Mercer Butts
"We are essentially going to be the leaders of the future." — Mercer Butts
Mercer Butts

Mercer Butts recently completed his applications to veterinary school and hopes to practice production animal medicine. Because of his interest in agricultural matters, he puts topics like farming and the climate change at the top of his list of political concerns.

"We're at a critical time in our country's history," he says. "There are so many issues that are near and dear to me that have to be solved in the next few years. Many farmers, especially smaller farmers, cannot find labor for their farms." He points to the importance of modernizing farms, expanding the H1 visa program and improving internet in rural locations.

Like McCoy, he also believes his generation will be dealing with these problems for decades, but he knows now is a time of crisis. "The same issues will be here 20 years from now," he says. "Ten billion people will be here by 2050, and we can't even feed the people we have right now."

Butts serves on the political action committee at NCA&T, which is the largest and the No. 1 public historically black college in the country. Because of his school's status, many Democratic candidates and other leaders have visited. He attended the first meeting to establish an early voting location on campus for students. Before it was created in 2019, many students had to walk — some up to 6 miles (9.6 kilometers) roundtrip — to the nearest polling location.

"It's so important that we are actually using our right to vote so that we are influencing change for the future," he says. "I've never had to make the decision that will influence us federally and nationally. To have that much power and influence for change is just wonderful. It makes me feel really good."

Butts voted in the primary elections when he was home in Atlanta and plans to drive back to vote in the presidential election, too.

Cory Schmitt, 18, Indiana University, Audio Engineering and Sound Production Major

Cory Schmitt
"It is incredibly important to vote and fight for what you believe in." — Cory Schmitt
Cory Schmitt

After voting for the first time ever in the California primary, Cory Schmitt left for Indiana to attend college. For the November presidential election, he's counting on his parents to get his ballot at home and mail it to him at school so he will fill it out and mail it back to California.

"Besides the fact that this is the first time I've had a chance to vote [for president], I am voting because I believe this era in history — the last decade through the next decade — will truly determine the fate of humanity and our society," he says via email.

And when it comes to the future, Schmitt says he thinks his generation's vote is the most important because they are the ones who will have to deal with the repercussions of politics for decades to come.

"The youngest people in a group of voters will always matter the most because of that," he explains. "Newborn babies technically have the most important role since they will most likely outlive the 18-year-olds. But they definitely should not be voting, so we'll stick to the adults."

Among young voters, Schmitt finds the most important issues to be COVID-19 and climate change.

"COVID-19 is the biggest problem our country is facing right now, while climate change is the biggest problem the world will face for all eternity if we don't do something about it," he writes.

Although Schmitt has political views, he says he's not typically outspoken about them. Instead, he emphasizes a desire to see "incredibly high" voter turnout because then he'll know people's voices were heard.

"Even if I strongly disagree with those voices," he states. "But I also think that if everyone voted, Donald Trump would not win because I think a majority of this country does not support him. But that could be the Democratic Southern-Californian in me talking."

Tara Joshi, 19, Bucknell University, Environmental Engineering Major

Tara Joshi
"If there's a year to vote, it's right now." — Tara Joshi
Tara Joshi

Although Tara Joshi plans to vote in the presidential election, she emphasizes the importance of voting in every election and would like to see more of a focus on that in today's social justice movements, particularly at the local level.

"If you want a change to how the police are being run, then vote for sheriff," she says. During the summer, Joshi voted in the primary and again in a Fulton County, Georgia, runoff. She will be voting again this November and says her plan is to do so in person.

"It's pretty exciting," she says. "Between COVID and BLM and climate change, this is a very pivotal year." As an environmental engineering student, she will dedicate her career to sustainability, so that is an important ballot issue for her. So are social justice issues.

"It's coming to light how far behind our country is in terms of social progress," she says. "You can't get rid of racism in 20 years. I'm hoping it will improve." She views a connection between all of the issues and how each affects the other. For example, with climate change, she says she believes it's low-income communities that suffer most from environmental disasters.

Joshi is currently taking college classes online, although Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, does offer face-to-face options. But because she is at home, she says she's considering serving as a poll worker.

"[Being a] poll worker is the main way I can make a difference," she says. And voting. "If someone doesn't vote and still wants to complain about who the president is, I kind of lose respect for them."

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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