For a new wave of young voters, the 2020 presidential election is the first opportunity to cast their ballots, setting up drastically different traditions from previous elections.
Dan Nataf, a professor at Anne Arundel Community College who has conducted years of public surveys, said new voters may be overwhelmed this election year with the onslaught of challenges as they search to find their voice and dig to understand their beliefs.
“First-time voters are often young and they don’t have strong ideology, perhaps, and they don’t have strong partisanship, perhaps. They’re trying to search for answers that are meaningful to their own situations,” Nataf explained.
This year is full of disruption as the pandemic invades corners of tradition and normal routines. Schools started the semester online, businesses pivoted to curbside deliveries, people are filing for unemployment and some are grieving the loss of loved ones.
“There are issues that will certainly animate first-time voters but my fear is that because they’re facing a lot of new stuff all at once, they might be overwhelmed,” he said.
Through all the news, debates and barrage of information, four first-time county voters navigated the election year to figure out who will earn their vote.
Waiting in line on Tuesday morning, Old Mill High School senior Conor Curran said he was at first anxious but after talking to people around him they got excited to hear it was his first time voting.
In an effort to increase voter turnout and to help reduce the possible spread of the coronavirus, Anne Arundel County has encouraged mail-in ballot and early voting. Curran cast his ballot at the Northeast High polling site.
“It was an energy that was so contagious,” Curran said. “It was just a good time and felt really good to have my voice be heard.”
Meade High School senior Drake Smith, the student member of the county Board of Education, opted to drop off his ballot a couple of days after he turned 18.
“I’ve been counting down the days that I could vote since I was 10,” Smith said.
He remembers going to the polling sites with his parents for previous elections, waiting for his own turn to fill in the bubbles.
“After they voted they would wear their ‘I voted’ stickers with pride. As a Black family, we know that this right was not given to us. We had to fight for it and we really value that in this household," he said.
Sabina Khan, an 18-year-old from Severna Park, was able to vote in the primaries as part of a Maryland law that allows for younger people to vote if they will turn 18 before the presidential election.
Khan said she first paid attention to politics in the United States after she moved from Abu Dhabi with her family when she was 14 years old.
She became passionate about government on a federal and local level after taking a high school government class and following an actress, Yara Shahidi, on social media as she started voting initiatives aimed at young people.
Daniel Negrete, a 20-year-old Odenton resident who is Hispanic, said there usually is low voter turnout for Hispanic residents.
“I thought the country has big issues and I think both (presidential) candidates are from the opposite spectrum,” he said.
Negrete said he uses a lot of news sources, both nationally and internationally, to understand the election.
The 2016 election gave students insight into the importance of voting.
Curran said he paid attention to politics during that election year as he saw it become divisive.
“It was really eye-opening about how the whole process goes with every component, and it is just something that blew us away — us as a nation,” he explained.
Tuning into this year’s campaigning, Curran watched how candidates behaved and presented themselves.
During the first debate, he said he wanted a president who would unite the country instead of divide it, adding that the debate confirmed his decision to vote for Joe Biden.
“It definitely reaffirmed a lot of decisions I made as far as my choice, having a temperament that is not blowing up at someone every five seconds and holding a civil conversation is something that is important to me.”
By the second debate, he said President Donald Trump was behaving a little more but that his “policies and views are nowhere near mine.”
For Khan, she tuned into the primaries and was a “big Bernie supporter.” Though she said Biden is more of a compromise, she voted for him.
Negrete, a student at Anne Arundel Community College, said the No. 1 issue is for him is the economy, especially as the pandemic has caused unemployment to rise.
But he added that he doesn’t believe either candidate has a plan to address the pandemic and the unemployment but more broad ideas
Even so, Negrete said he was going to vote for Trump.
“I think either candidate would have done a decent job, to be honest,” he said but stressed that he does not want the economy to close back up.
“I think that would, and has, hurt cities in America. I think a lot of people are becoming unemployed and a lot of people are becoming homeless,” he said.
Along with the economy, the young voters said they care about education, health care and the environment.
Khan, a freshman at the University of Maryland, College Park, said she is worried about federal and state funding for colleges and universities.
After reviewing possible tuition increases, Khan said funding should be allocated to education and health care rather than other government areas like the military.
“We are not really defending people with our Army. We are building it to build it. Having a defense is important but I don’t think we need it at the caliber we have today,” Khan said.
For her last semester at Severna Park High, Khan learned online as schools had to emergency close. During that time, she realized that not every family would have equal access and reached out to a local official to ask what was being done to help families in need.
“I feel like the wealth gap has widened and people have been put to the wayside,” she said.
Funding historically Black colleges is also an issue for voters like Smith. He said along with voter suppression, health care and the criminal justice system, he also cares about higher education and would like to see historically Black colleges receive more money.
Students have also looked at the local elections on the ballot. Some, like Curran, were able to vote in the Anne Arundel Board of Education election.
He voted for Ken Baughman in District 3 because of his experiences as a teacher and their aligned beliefs, adding that his opinion does not reflect his position as president of the Chesapeake Regional Association of Student Councils.
Though Smith’s district was not on the ballot he said that his experience on the board has so far taught him how to compromise, an ability he hopes to see happen on a national stage.
“The federal government should take lessons. We are on different sides on so many issues but we find common ground,” Smith explained.
“[Trump] is really pitting America against itself,” he said, adding that some people do not talk about politics because they are afraid of possible violence.
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