Today is the first federal general Election Day since the Supreme Court voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that protected a person's right to choose abortion no matter where they lived in the U.S. It's also coming amid intense inflation and economic concern, and after the events of January 6, 2021. Oh, and don't forget the pandemic.
"We're ready to show up and fight," says Marianna Pecora, who volunteers for the youth-led organization Voters of Tomorrow. She believes the 2022 midterms may be the most important in her lifetime so far. “Everything from our reproductive rights to our access to healthcare to our future living on a planet getting increasingly warmer is on the line. Even the most basic idea of our democracy."
The power of young voters is not to be underestimated. Their votes in the high-stakes midterm elections today could make all the difference in determining political outcomes in states with tight races — and in helping to determine who'll control Congress. For example, they're likely to have a disproportionately high impact in races in battleground states such as Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).
Every year, more members of Gen Z are able to vote in elections. Although, not all of them do actually cast their ballot. Roughly 40% of youth voters stated they'd "definitely vote" this year in the 2022 Harvard Youth Poll by the school's Institute of Politics. About 57% of them prefer a Democratic-controlled Congress.
Specifically, abortion and the economy are top of young voters’ minds right now, says Ruby Belle Booth, the election coordinator for CIRCLE. Although the vast majority of abortions are now banned in at least 13 states, three-quarters of 18- to 29-year-olds say abortion should generally be legal, holding this belief at higher rates than their elders. However, many politicians see this voting block as apathetic. Sure, there are some candidates making efforts to bring young people into the fold, but most just aren't listening to the complex array of issues of interest to young people, especially first-time voters.
Booth says this is a mistake. "There is this sense that young people are unserious and aren't engaged in these big political issues. Part of that is cultural because people assume if a young person likes to watch 'get ready with me' videos on TikTok, they must not also be watching videos about politics. Many do both, but a lot of older people just don't fundamentally understand that."
The best way to understand this voting group is to talk to them. So, we asked five first-time voters in the federal general elections how they really feel about the issues that divide us and shape our world.
Raksha Govind, 18, Atlanta, Georgia
When the Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade this June, Raksha Govind was visiting her grandma in India. "It was so emotional," she reflects. "Being around my mom, my grandma and hearing what they'd gone through in my home country, and understanding that where I live now has regressed backward? It was just really really stark… My aunts and family talk to me and their own daughters about fighting in India against femicide and for women's rights. The U.S. is supposed to be an example, one of the largest democracies and a free country where my family came for a better life. This context just made the news even more discouraging."
But Govind recalled a mural she’d seen earlier that day in her grandmother's neighborhood. It read: "my body is not a public space" and showed a woman with a hand clamped over her mouth and a knife in her heart surrounded by blue and yellow flowers. Behind her stood another woman talking into a megaphone. Govind felt galvanized by the artwork. Being abroad, she couldn’t protest on the ground in Georgia where she lives but she got involved online, working to get her peers to go vote.
She's been doing this work long before she was able to cast a ballot herself. She's been involved in the Black Lives Matter movement and raised awareness about hate crimes in the Asian American community, specifically doing work shining light on racial bias in our everyday technology with the organization Encode Justice. "Every action you take towards social progression is important, no matter what it is, and even if things don't go your way right when you want them to," she says. This is a lesson she says she learned from Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams — who gave a speech at Govind's school about resilience and persistence. The messages stuck with Govind. And last week, she got to vote for Abrams in an election where the margins are predicted to be razor-thin — one that her very generation may help determine the outcome of.
However, she knows getting to the polls as a young person (or for anyone) isn't always easy. In August, a judge declined to block part of a Georgia election law banning people from giving food and water to voters waiting in line. And, her area was recently redistricted, meaning a map of whose votes are tallied in which district was re-drawn. "I live in a diverse pocket of my city and it got redistricted to a largely white, Republican representative district. That means my vote that's progressive and blue is now washed out because we were added to this district that doesn't believe in reproductive rights or COVID. It's super demeaning." The new district issue decreased her excitement about voting, she said.
Maya Mackey, 19, Austin, TX
Maya Mackey was in her high school's chemistry lab when the "lockdown" announcement came over the loudspeaker indicating that an active shooter could be in the building. The first thing she felt was fear. Then, strangely, she felt something close to gratitude. She and her friends had talked about what they'd do during a school shooting and decided the chem lab was the safest possible place. There was a supply closet behind multiple locked doors. She ran into the closet and turned off the lights. This incident turned out to be a false alarm — there was no active shooter — but the experience stuck with Mackey in the worst way.
Back in May this year, a few years after Mackey’s experience, a man crashed his truck into a ditch in Uvalde, TX near Robb Elementary School and barged into the building with a gun, killing 19 children and two teachers. "There's just this mounting anger because — people should have been doing their jobs," Mackey says. "The police officers should have. The politicians should have. They should have been promoting gun control long, long before that shooting ever happened. And then there's this really weird other thought you have as a young person. You're just like, Thank God, like, it wasn't me. I was just in school and something that could have happened." (The Texas Department of Public Safety and Uvalde Police Department haven't responded to Refinery29's request for comment).
Gun control is a major issue for Mackey, who says that topic and abortion access were at the top of mind for her as she mailed in her ballot ahead of Voting Day. And she hopes other people her age will get out to vote, too.
"In Texas, there are seven forms of acceptable photo ID that you can use when you're going to vote," Mackey says. "One of those forms is a handgun license. But none of those seven forms are student IDs."
Mackey isn't sitting idly by waiting for politicians to improve this reality — she's been working with Voters of Tomorrow to get out the vote. Specifically, she came up with a campaign called "F*ck Fascism." Thanks to this idea, the team is passing out condoms in places where young people hang out, and the wrappers have pamphlets glued to them that encourage people to practice safe sex post-Roe. They also have information on how to vote and get involved in the political process.
In the meantime, she's cast her ballot for folks who she believes will make things better, including politicians such as Beto O'Rourke, who's running for governor in the state. O’Rourke confronted Gov. Greg Abbott at a news conference after the Uvalde shooting saying "This is on you." As she puts it: "When my ballot finally came — after years of being active and following these politicians without having a say — it was like Christmas Day."
Marianna Pecora, 18, Washington, D.C.
Marianna Pecora believes voting for kind, empathetic elected officials is key. Maybe that's because she was kicked by a politician just last month, she says. Pecora was at the Capitol with Voters of Tomorrow attempting to ask Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene about gun control. After a heated exchange, Pecora says Rep. Greene kicked her and made xenophobic comments to another activist (Greene has denied wrongdoing, and hasn't returned Refinery29's request for comment. You can watch the video of the incident, which was also posted by Greene herself, here). "It's not just about the kick," she says. "It's about xenophobia and blatant disrespect for young people. The Congresswoman votes on bills that would impact me, my generation, and all Americans. I had a few questions for her about gun violence, something that is devastating schools, places of worship, and communities across our country. I think it was reasonable of me to ask for a respectful answer. Too many politicians like her have spent their entire careers attacking young people." And Pecora sees the kick as one physical manifestation of that.
The experience ran through her mind as she voted by mail on Halloween, filling out her ballot in her dorm room. Other big issues on her mind were democracy, reproductive rights, and climate change. "I care a lot about my friends nationwide whose rights are under attack because of new abortion laws," she says. "I voted for a member of Congress who will protect bodily autonomy and a woman's right to choose." She's seen the fight for abortion access activate herself and her peers. And so, when she hears people talking about Gen Z apathy and disillusionment, or saying that young people are tired of talking about issues like abortion, it pushes her buttons. "Yes, there are times we are fatigued, but just because we're fatigued doesn't mean we're not going to vote." People care, she says, and they just need to have the resources to access their right to vote — and a push to the polls.
Denise Garcia Ornelas, 19, Phoenix, AZ
A lot of Denise Garcia Ornelas's friends feel a little 'meh' about voting. Some see it as a headache to figure out, or a chore. But Garcia Ornelas knows what a privilege it is. "I'm the only one who can vote in my family, and so I'm sort of voting on behalf of everyone," says the 19-year-old, who is the only member of her family born in the U.S.
Garcia Ornelas is most excited about voting yes on a down-ballot measure called Proposition 308, for which a "yes" vote will help allow students who aren't citizens receive in-state college tuition if they attended school in Arizona for at least two years and graduate in the state. The proposition will directly impact Garcia Ornelas's older sister, who is a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the Obama-era program offering undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children protection and permission to work.
She first heard about the push to make in-state tuition for dreamers a reality five years ago, when her sister got involved with the organization Aliento, which advocates for DACA recipients and those without immigration status. Since then, the siblings have joined the campaign to make the proposition a reality, going to the state legislature and knocking on doors. When she knocked on one of her first doors, the person who answered didn't seem enthusiastic about voting. "But I explained what Proposition 308 was, and how right now Arizona dreamers don't have access to in-state tuition or publicly funded scholarships," she says. "He ultimately signed our pledge and committed to vote, and he said he had family who was undocumented and DACA [recipients] and he thought it'd benefit them. A lot of people aren't super moved by specific candidates, but this is something they could get behind."
Along with voting herself, Garcia Ornelas hopes her work on efforts like Proposition 308 will mobilize people to do more research on what's at stake and how their votes can impact real students and real lives. "I know so many people who are obviously discouraged," she says. "They're like, 'What is my vote gonna do?' But, from my perspective, it can do a lot."
CJ Walden, 18, Boca Raton, FL
Every pride month, CJ Walden sees an explosion of eye-catching rainbow colors and statements of support from politicians and businesses. But, in reality, he hasn't felt so supported or seen — especially since his state passed the so-called 'Don't Say Gay' bill earlier this year, which disallows schools from “encouraging classroom instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels” or in a way that is “not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.”
"The legislators who voted in support of that do not care about me or the LGBTQ+ community and they never will," says Walden, who is gay and the vice president of the student-led advocacy organization PRISM FL. "These legislators continue to make harmful assumptions against not only me but my entire community. They want to take our rights away... We have to fight and defend ourselves."
Even in South Florida, which Walden says is pretty liberal compared to the rest of the state, he notes: "I still feel attacked, I still get bullied, I still get looked at differently in my classes because I'm trying to be who I am." Based on his experiences, he believes learning about topics like gender and sexuality in school can make a big difference, especially in the lives of queer kids. And he knows that the Florida law is just the beginning. House Republicans have introduced a similar bill nationally.
For this and other reasons, he's looking forward to voting against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (who signed the 'Don't Say Gay' bill into law) in his first general election. "Before I recently turned 18 and couldn't vote, I did feel really powerless," he adds. "I felt like some cared what I had to say but many didn't care because I was a 'child'… yet, I was a minor who had a job and no choice but to pay taxes, which you're forced to pay but then you don't get a vote. Isn't that taxation without representation?"
Meanwhile, Walden has felt the effects of the economic downturn and inflation, other issues Walden is keeping in mind while voting, along with abortion access. "I live in an affluent area, but I myself am not affluent — I feel like I have to struggle, to work hard," he says. "At the same time, I think reproductive rights are on the chopping block this election as well as LGBTQ+ rights, and our general fundamental rights and freedoms as a populous," he says. "It's a lot to wrap our minds around, but we have to vote. We have to make our voices heard."
Reporting by Molly Longman