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Youth votes in Erie County

Privacy dividers for voters to mark ballots at local Erie County polling place. Photo by Olivia King/Ithaca Week.

Arooj Ghori, resident of Erie County, first became aware of political issues at the end of elementary school. Ghori said she was introduced to politics so early in life because as a person of color, she was more aware of policies impacting marginalized communities. Ghori, 20, said she has always been interested in politics, which she now studies at the University of Albany. The 2020 presidential race has been the first presidential election in which she has been eligible to vote. She voted via absentee ballot.

“I just want to see people lead the country that care about different kinds of people, not just one group,” Ghori said.

According to the Erie County Board of Elections, people aged 18 to 20 make up 3.4 % of the voters in the county. Those aged 21 to 29 make up 13.9 %. Historically, young people have had the lowest voter turnout rates of any age group. According to The New York Times, these low turnout rates can be attributed to habitual behavior, opportunity cost and alternate forms of political participation.

Franchelle Parker, executive director of Open Buffalo, said that low turnout rates for young people are also caused by a lack of resources and education in schools about voting and frustration with the government. However, this election might look different. Nationally, young voters are turning out to vote, some of them for the first time, at higher rates than ever. According to the 40th edition of the Harvard Youth Poll, 63% of respondents from a pool of Americans aged 18 to 29 indicated that they would definitely be voting, compared to 47% in 2016.

Local Push for Turnout

Open Buffalo is a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing racial, economic and ecological justice. The organization has Youth Action and Emerging Leaders programs to help engage young people in politics, sometimes before they are even eligible to vote. Youth Action is meant for people aged 16 to 25 who have demonstrated a commitment to social justice issues.

Open Buffalo has played a part in civic engagement this election, registering about 900 people to vote through their Youth Action and 716 Votes! initiative. The initiative aimed to engage, educate and activate people of color aged 16 to 25 in order to increase voter registration and turnout in the 2020 election and beyond.

The organization also partnered with the New York Immigration Coalition to send out about 35,000 text messages to people in the area about registration and voting. Parker said the organization relied heavily on social media and other remote ways, like the texts, to get out the vote due to COVID-19.

“We’re really utilizing social media … just really trying to engage people where they’re at,” she said, “and right now, they’re in front of a laptop or in front of their phone. So that’s new for us, how we engage people.”

Sign at local Erie County Polling place, indicating that masks are required for entry due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Olivia King/Ithaca Week.

Who Are First-Time Voters Supporting?

On a national level, youth supported Democratic nominee Joe Biden for president at a substantial rate. According to Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, 61% of people aged 18-29 supported Biden while 36% supported Republican nominee Donald Trump.

According to the New York Times, 51.7% of voters in Erie County supported Biden. It is not yet known how many of those voters were part of the youth or first-time voter demographics.

Ghori does fit into these categories. Like the majority of her age group, Ghori supported Biden. She said Biden and Kamala Harris’s policies align with her own beliefs more than Trump’s. She noted that though she does not agree with Biden on everything, she will always vote Democrat and it is worth it to get Trump out of office.

“I just can’t see Donald Trump in office again due to his sheer racism and how he thinks about anyone that isn’t a heterosexual male,” Ghori said.

Entrance sign at an Erie County polling place. People waited in line outside the building adhering to social distancing precautions. Photo by Olivia King/Ithaca Week.

Arianna Milone, 19, is a first-time voter in Erie County as well. Like Ghori and much of the youth voter population, she also supported Biden. Milone said Biden’s policies regarding the environment and health care were important factors.

“I believe he is fit to become America’s next president,” Milone said.

Sarah Siddiqui, 19, is another first-time voter in Erie County who voted for Biden because he was the Democratic nominee. She said her beliefs better align with Biden than Trump.

Natalie Marinides, 21, also supported Biden as an Erie County resident in her first presidential election. She said she believes Trump is a narcissist who is fueling national tensions.

“I know Joe Biden is not perfect or anything,” Marinides said. “He’s the better option here. We can’t get stuck with another four years of Trump.”

John Mahoney, 19, differs from the majority of youth voters. He too voted in Erie County for the first time in a presidential election on Nov. 3. Though he was still undecided on Nov. 2, he ultimately decided to vote for Trump, citing his dislike for Harris as his reasoning.

Though Ghori has always been aware of politics, Siddiqui, Milone and Marinides all said the 2016 presidential election was what really opened their eyes to the political realm. For Mahoney, this awareness came in 2018.

What Issues Matter?

Tufts CIRCLE reported that the environment and climate change, racism, and health care access and affordability were the top three issues influencing young voters this election.

This was true of Ghori, Marinides, Siddiqui and Milone.

Their top issues:

  • Climate change
  • COVID-19
  • Reproductive rights
  • Systemic racism
  • Gender equality
  • LGBTQIA+ rights
  • Healthcare
  • Minimum wage
  • Social Security

Mahoney differed, noting gun rights, a populist agenda and increased accessibility to polling places as the issues most important to him.

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