For one generation of voters, Tuesday will be their first chance to have a say in the country’s future in a year marred by the coronavirus pandemic and divisive politics.
In the Roanoke and New River valleys, young voters casting their first presidential ballot have diverse and varied reasons for voting and the issues that matter most to them.
Noah Simmons, a senior at Hidden Valley High School in Roanoke County, plans to vote on Election Day, “as it should be,” and cast his first-ever ballot for President Donald Trump.
Caroline Harris, also a senior at Hidden Valley, is friends with Simmons. She plans to cast her ballot for Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
Harris, 18, said she tries to surround herself with people of all viewpoints.
“I really like to hear what they have to say as well and put my thoughts into that because I don’t want to just be one-sided constantly and keep a closed mind,” she said.
Virginia voter registration between the ages of 18 and 24 has increased by 11% between 2016 and 2020, according to a data snapshot taken 11 days before the two Election Days by Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).
Though youth voters have traditionally voted at a lower rate than older age groups, the rate has increased in recent years — 2018 had the highest national youth midterm turnout in four decades, doubled from 2014, according to CIRCLE researcher Noorya Hayat.
“Gen Z just exploded on the scene,” Hayat said. “So that’s one of the promising trends that we’re seeing.”
Absentee and early votes cast in Virginia 11 days before the election also exceed the same time period in 2016. Young voters ages 18-29 cast 223,000 ballots, compared to 33,700 in 2016.
In Roanoke, 30% of registered 18-year-olds had already voted about a week before Election Day, according to data from registrar Andrew Cochran, compared to a total of 34.6% who voted in 2016.
College towns, however, are seeing a drop in young voters because students may be voting absentee in their hometowns, according to registrars in Montgomery County and Radford.
Registration among students living on Virginia Tech’s campus is down by about 1,000 from 2016, said Connie Viar, Montgomery County director of elections.
Uncertainty around COVID-19 may be a factor, according to an election officer who spoke about voting recently with members of Virginia Tech’s Corps of Cadets.
“She got the impression that they left their registrations at their homes this year, their parents’ homes, due to the fact that they didn’t know if Tech would shut down or not,” Viar said.
Tech’s student voters also aren’t showing up to the polls early. Out of 3,309 voters registered to on-campus precincts, only 133 have voted early in-person, with another handful mailing in ballots, as of Thursday. If all those registered voters show up to cast ballots near the same time on Election Day, “it could cause long lines,” Viar said.
Still, most Tech students live off-campus in Montgomery County, where overall voter registration is up slightly from 2016.
Harris, who grew up going to the polls with her parents, said the experience instilled in her the importance of voting. In keeping with that tradition, she plans to go to the polls Tuesday with her father.
Except this time, she’ll cast a ballot, too.
The Roanoke Times interviewed first-time presidential voters about what it’s like being a young voter and the issues that matter to them. The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Noah Simmons, 18
Senior at Hidden Valley High School
Hometown: Roanoke County
Voting for: Donald Trump
Issues that are most important: I like my freedom in this country. That’s important to me because my great-granddad fought in World War II, stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day. And I just feel like he fought for our freedom, and that’s what’s important to me. I like my gun rights, and as a Christian I feel like abortion is something not to be done. So I am against abortion.
Level of motivation to vote: I’ve always wanted to vote. This year — the end of 2019 and all of 2020 — that’s when I’ve really been starting to pay attention to politics and what would happen if he lost, and what would happen if he won.
What’s frustrating about politics: The riots and lighting people’s cars on fire. I know that hasn’t happened in a while, but I mean, that’s just part of it. Or getting into arguments in public places about who you’re voting for, who you aren’t voting for. I feel like everybody says you can freely say what you want to say. But whenever you do that, you always get dogged on saying what you believe in, and people tell you you’re wrong.
Elizabeth Ferguson, 19
Sophomore at Radford University
Voted for: Joe Biden
On being a young voter: I think my generation has had the opportunity to see political issues as human issues. It’s not something that’s separate from our lives, it’s something that’s very integrated into our lives because we interact with different types of people, I feel like, more than other generations do.
Issues that are most important: Human rights, so Black Lives Matter, LGBT, Roe v. Wade, minimum wage being raised, college debt crisis, health care. I consider myself a pacifist, but I’d just like to see what kind of foreign policy is happening next because I feel like we’ve really been lacking with that this last president. And environmental policy is very big, too.
What’s frustrating about politics: Oh, the two-party system has got to go, it’s driving me crazy. Because I am a Christian. And I have some more traditionally Christian views that might align with some of the Republican platform, but things way out that caused me to be a Democrat. But then I feel like I’m not getting any of my Christian self heard in the Democratic Party. I feel like Republicans have taken the label, being the Christian party. That causes Christianity as a whole to kind of be forced into that party, like people just think it’s synonymous: Republican and Christian. And that’s frustrating to me because I’m a Democrat because I’m a Christian.
Prince Ewusie, 19
Sophomore at Radford University
Hometown: Stafford County
Voting for: Joe Biden
Issues that are most important: With our current president we’ve seen a lot of stuff going on with racism and the LGBTQ community. The past few months we’ve seen how black people can be treated in the country and how the president has been silent about it. Those are the two main issues that are bothering me and really making me vote this year.
On being a young voter: I’m excited. This is a big decision. I will say it’s the first big decision I will make in life. Hopefully who I vote for is going to bring the change I am expecting to happen in this country.
Sidney Keyes, 21
Senior at Randolph College
Voting for: Donald Trump
Hometown: Botetourt County
Issues that are most important: One of the most important issues to me would be the economy. I think that’s very important. You have to be able to have a good economy for businesses to run, for schools to operate. And I think that Trump has done an excellent job at that.
What’s frustrating about politics: The idea that people will attack you for your political view if they don’t agree with you. Being a first-time voter in the presidential election, I have a lot of friends that are my age that are going through the exact same thing, and it’s hard to talk about stuff like that in politics because it’s hard for people to understand and be able to discuss an issue instead of just criticizing someone’s view and attacking them for that view. I try and stay away from talking to some of my friends about it just because I know that it would probably hurt some of my friendships, which is really devastating to me.
On being a young voter:
Anoushka Deshmukh, 18
Freshman at Virginia Tech
Voted for: Joe Biden
Hometown: Fairfax County
Issues that are most important: As a young voter, climate change is a really big issue for me personally because just the direction our planet is headed in, we definitely need strong leadership to take charge of the problem. Additionally, healthcare is a big issue for me. Being in a global pandemic, we’ve definitely seen how it’s impacted a lot of people, so I definitely want to see improvement in that area. And I guess a last issue for me would be women’s reproductive rights. Those are really important, too. So just having somebody who believes in science and stuff like that is really important.
On the voting process: I did an absentee mail-in ballot. So I just had them send the ballot here to Virginia Tech. And I filled it out, got my roommate as my witness and mailed it back in. I believe I did it a few weeks ago but I was definitely I guess paranoid about making sure my vote counted. With the UPS having so much trouble lately it’s kind of worrying, I guess, about how seriously they are going to take it, the election, but hopefully it all goes well. I’m actually really worried about what’s going to happen after — November 4th. I guess both sides are really frustrated so whoever wins the election, there’s going to be some type of rioting involved after anyways.
Staff photographer Heather Rousseau and staff writer Tonia Moxley contributed information to this report.