Although disappointed in options, young Cape Cod voters plan increased role in election

The Massachusetts Statehouse. (Photo by Ana Goni-Lessan/BU News Service)

By Gwyneth Burns and Jessica Hill
BU News Service

On Election Day, Sasha Rivers will go to the polls in Chatham to vote in her first presidential election. She prefers to vote in person rather than by mail because she wants the full experience.

Rivers, 19, is passionate about issues such as abortion rights and immigration and is excited to cast her vote. But she said it has been difficult to get information from candidates about issues important to her, and she thinks many young people feel a general sense of apathy toward politics, finding it unrelatable to the issues and problems they face.

“It’s so hard to feel that we’re cared about,” she said. “We feel so uninvolved in the world that’s going on around us, so it’s hard to really care.” 

Rivers is among young voters who are casting their ballots in larger numbers than previous years and are driven by issues they care about as well as the stark contrast between the two presidential candidates. 

As of Oct. 30, more than 7 million people ages 18 to 29 had already voted early or by absentee ballot, including more than 4 million in 14 key states that could decide the presidential race, according to CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.

Millions turned 18 since 2016

The number of young voters is projected to increase from the last presidential election. A Harvard Kennedy School poll found that 63% of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 indicated they will definitely be voting by Nov. 3, a 16% increase in the number of young people who voted in 2016. 

The growing number of young people such as Rivers who reached voting age since 2016 is another factor.

“More than 15 million young Americans have turned 18 since the last presidential election. The Gen Z generation is facing a once-in-a-lifetime experience of a global pandemic, economic instability, and racial reckoning,” Mark Gearan, director of the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, said on the institute’s website.

 “Young Americans are seeing firsthand how their government impacts their day-to-day lives and they are ready to make their voice heard in this election,” he said.

But many young voters feel a general disappointment with their options for president and are frustrated with politics, even though CIRCLE’s pre-election poll showed 58% of young people preferred Joe Biden compared with 24% who preferred President Donald Trump.  

Ben Niggel, a 19-year-old Eastham resident, thinks the 2016 election was what got many young people between the ages of 19 and 25 involved in politics.

“Even though these young voters had the motivation to stop Trump getting into office, they didn’t turn out to vote in 2016 like they should have,” he said. “And I think the young people realize that.

“They might have wanted Bernie or another candidate that appeals to young people more and has more energy,” he said, “but they realize that Biden is a whole lot better than Trump and that it’s important that young people turn out.” 

Theo Calianos, 20, a Cotuit resident and sophomore studying computer science at Cape Cod Community College, agrees with Niggel. It seems like every young person he has talked to is disappointed in both candidates, he said. 

“I feel like this election is in a weird spot where it’s pretty blatant who you’re going to vote for because they’re so contrasting,” Calianos said. “This election you can get away with not doing a lot of research.” 

Key issues

“The environment, racism and affordable health care are the top three issues most commonly named by youth as the most important in driving their vote this November,” according to a 2020 youth poll by CIRCLE. “Getting back to normal after the pandemic and police mistreatment also ranked highly.”

“These are issues that aren’t going away with the election, and it’s about choosing people that are going to take a stand against these issues,” said Julia Maruca, a student at Boston University.

Health care a top issue

One key issue among young voters is affordable health care. According to Nationscape Insights, 58% of 18- to 29-year-olds are in favor of providing the option to purchase government-run insurance to all Americans and 57% agree with enacting Medicare for All. Nationscape Insights is a partnership between the Democracy Fund, UCLA and USA Today that has been surveying voters since July 2019 with the goal of talking to 500,000 people by Election Day.

Young adults make up the most uninsured age group and have the lowest access to employer-based insurance, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

“I believe health care should be accessible for everyone,” said Emily Fraser-Read, 22, of Maine. “No one should have to die or suffer because they can’t afford health care or they don’t have access to health care providers.”

Climate change and a passion to protect the environment have also driven young voters to the polls.

According to Nationscape data, 39% of 18- to 29-year-olds favor enacting a Green New Deal.

“For me personally, climate change and the environment is a big deal because it’s not going away no matter who wins the election,” Maruca said. “It’s just going to get worse if things aren’t done about it.”

Maruca voted via absentee ballot thinking that her vote would have more of an impact in her home state of Pennsylvania, especially this year.

“There is a lot of talk about what will get changed,” she said. “For instance, if Biden wins, and if you’re looking at it from the perspective of climate change, he is more likely to be the one who would take actions to mitigate climate change.”

Young Democratic voters are particularly interested in seeing environmental change, with respondents ranking three related issues in their top five most pressing issue lists, according to an Alliance for Youth Action poll. The poll showed 91% of respondents support the transition to 100% clean and renewable energy, while 86% agree with declaring climate change a national emergency and 84% would like to see investments in public transit to reduce carbon emissions.

Race and policing have become a larger part of the national conversation following the death of George Floyd and others, which has resulted in increased momentum behind the Black Lives Matter movement.

On policing, 7% of young voter respondents cited police treatment of communities of color as the top issue determining their vote this fall, according to CIRCLE data. “Black youth name racism (22%) and mistreatment by police (15%) as their top issues.” For the comparison, white youth ranked their top issues as the environment (14.5%) and health care (12%).

‘Triple crisis’

There is also the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Young Americans today find themselves on the front lines of the ‘triple crises’ of COVID,” said Justin Tseng, chairman of the Harvard Public Opinion Project. “Their education has been disrupted, job prospects falter, and communities experiencing racial reckonings are causing constant concern about their daily livelihoods and the well-being of their friends and their families.”

The response to this issue centers on working to eliminate systemic racism to ensure that people of color do not have to live in fear, said Sarah McCafferty, a student at the University of Pittsburgh who has attended rallies to protest police brutality.

Young voters are seeking to change this narrative by voting in new leadership this November, since “with the president’s encouragement, racism is getting worse instead of better,” McCafferty said.

According to Nationscape data, 19% of young voters are in favor of banning all guns, and 44% agree with banning assault rifles, compared with the 65-plus demographic, where 73% are in favor.

Shiba Esfand, a Boston University Student, attended high school in close proximity to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the location of the Parkland, Florida, shooting. Esfand’s younger sister attends middle school in the same county where there has been an uptick in drills to prepare students and faculty in the event of an active assailant on campus.

“While these drills are beneficial, they also cause a great deal of anxiety in my sister and her friends,” Esfand said. “Children shouldn’t have to go through these drills and fear for their lives every time they walk into school.”

Young voters are the closest voter demographic to school age. Many experienced these trainings firsthand and are now seeing the fear heighten as drills become more intense, Esfand said.

Strong support for abortion

On the issue of abortion, 55% of 18- to 29-year-olds support abortion for reasons other than rape, incest or the woman’s life being in danger; while 20% of that age group favor never permitting abortion under any circumstance, according to Nationscape.

“I don’t believe the government has the right to control women’s bodies or what they can access for medical procedures when they don’t fully understand the risks often associated with things such as ectopic pregnancies or nonviable pregnancies,” Fraser-Read said. “Making abortions illegal doesn’t make them disappear, it ends access to safe abortions for those who might die if they don’t pursue other options.”

These views were demonstrated on Oct. 17 as women marched in support of equal treatment and against Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court in front of the Massachusetts Statehouse.

Focus on local elections

Niggel, a sophomore at Harvard University studying government, is also involved heavily in local Cape politics. He is a member of the Eastham School Committee and the Eastham Democratic Town Committee. He and a group of other young people are working to form an organization that would dedicate their time to helping run local campaigns. 

Many conservative incumbents running for reelection do not have a difficult time winning, he said. The campaigns often involve little effort and little money and are not positioned well for a challenger who has a dedicated campaign team and is well-organized, he said.

“In other words we really want incumbents to be accountable to the voters,” Niggel said, “and not just to the voters but to young people because we are the future.”

He thinks, especially at a national level, that important issues such as the environment are not being taken seriously by the other side of the aisle.

“We want to make sure that other local representatives here in Massachusetts are advocating for us here on Beacon Hill for clean energy and other priorities important to young people.” 

Rivers said the political parties glimpsed past many of the issues she cares about, such as police brutality and the way the justice system treats Black men. The parties instead are focused on issues that appeal more to swing state voters, she said.

There is little transparency in politics and it has been difficult to find clear information on topics, she said. For instance, she has been doing a lot of research on the Electoral College but has not been able to get a clear read on whether it is positive or negative for the country, she said. 

There is a lot of societal pressure to vote, Rivers said, with this idea that “if you don’t vote you don’t care and you’re privileged.” But that is not true, she said. “I live in a blue state, so my vote doesn’t count as much.”

This article was originally published in the Cape Cod Times.

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