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Health care, racism and TikTok: Young voters speak out on what’s pushing them to the polls

Young voters of Western New York
Courtesy of UB Athletics (left), Rory Wheeler (center) and Myra McAlevey (right)
From left to right, Tra’Von Fagan, 22, Rory Wheeler, 23, and Myra McAlevey, 26, are all part of what could be a historic youth voter turnout for the 2020 presidential election.";

Youth voter turnout appears to be surging this election season. As record early voting numbers continue to stream in, WBFO’s Kyle Mackie spoke to six young voters living in Western New York about what’s influencing their vote.

Ask some of the people under 30 in your life about voting and you’ll probably get some answers like this:

Credit Courtesy of UB Athletics
LaQuill (Q) Hardnett, 21, a member of the University at Buffalo men’s basketball team, convinced 100% of his teammates to register to vote this year. Hardnett voted by absentee ballot in Maryland.

“Everybody I’ve been talking to, so like everyone I know, is voting this time around.” - LaQuill (Q) Hardnett, 21, Buffalo

“All of my friends that I've spoken to and family members my age, my cousins and stuff, they're all voting.” - Myra McAlevey, 26, Lancaster

“People are, like, waking up, and I hear a lot more talking about it with my friends and the people who I be talking with about voting. I think it’s been put out there more and I think everyone’s being more aware of it right now.” - Tra’Von Fagan, 22, Buffalo

Compared to this time in 2016, 16% more young people aged 18-29 said they’re “definitely” voting this year, according to the latest Harvard Youth Poll by the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School. As of Friday, more than 7 million young people had already cast their ballots and the youth share of early voting was higher than in 2016 in 13 key states that could determine who wins the presidency, according to data analysis by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University.

"I don’t think I can think of a single person, even in my classes and stuff, that is voting for Donald J. Trump."

We also know that Generation Z and the youngest Millennials are more diverse and more progressive than older generations, and people under 30 who have voted early favor Democrats by 30 points, according to the Democratic data firm TargetSmart. That tracks with what 21-year-old Shyanne Ott has been hearing on campus at Medaille College, where she serves as president of the Student Government Association.

“All of my friends, even the ones who have been previously, when they first registered had registered as a Republican because of their parents’ beliefs, they are 100% — I went with like three or four of my friends yesterday and we all voted for Biden,” Ott said. “I don’t think I can think of a single person, even in my classes and stuff, that is voting for Donald J. Trump.”

Ott said she voted for former Vice President Joe Biden to support “basic human rights,” gun control and other issues, but she also has a very Gen Z theory about why so many young people plan to vote against President Trump. It goes back to August, when Trump announced his intent to outlaw U.S. transactions with the popular video-sharing social media app TikTok, which is owned by a Chinese company.

Credit Solen Feyissa/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
A federal judge in Pennsylvania blocked the Trump administration’s plan to outlaw U.S. transactions with the popular video social media app TikTok on Friday. The ban was set to take effect on Nov. 12.

“The reason that I think that he wanted to ban TikTok was because people were making collages and, like, video compilations of him saying outrageous things,” Ott said, including many of his most controversial statements from the 2016 presidential election that the new generation of voters might not have heard back then.

The Trump administration has cited national security concerns for wanting to ban the app, but Ott said she thinks the videos were just making him mad. And Gen Z really likes TikTok.

“We spent all of quarantine on TikTok, let’s be real here,” she said. “Once we saw all this, we were like wait, wait, wait, wait—we do want that to happen again. Like, there’s no way.”

Credit Courtesy of UB Athletics
Tra’Von Fagan, 22, voted by absentee ballot in his home state of Iowa.

Hardnett and Fagan are students at the University at Buffalo and players on the men’s basketball team. The team has a 100% voter registration rate this year, thanks in large part to Hardnett’s advocacy efforts.

“Yeah, I got everybody registered while we were in quarantine,” Hardnett said, “because we all came from out of state, so we had a mandatory two-week quarantine. We got that done over that time.”

All but two of the players are from out of state, so Hardnett said they’ve all mailed their absentee ballots in. Hardnett is registered in Maryland, the solidly-blue state where his parents live, and Fagan is from Iowa, a swing state that could be up for grabs this year. Both players are African American and both chose to vote for Biden.

"We're the next generation up, so it's kind of on us. We can't expect not to vote and then complain about what’s gonna be happening."

“The most important issue I’m voting on is how African Americans are treated in the judicial system and all the judges that Trump was appointing,” Hardnett said. “I think the judges that he appointed are going to help to suppress the minorities and stuff like that, and I feel like any other president is not going to put people purposefully in that position to hold us down.”

Fagan said President Trump’s “disregard” for issues that impact African Americans also influenced his vote, but he said he’s also thinking about things like health care. “[My vote] isn’t for me yet, but it’s more so for the future and, like, my kids’ sake,” he said. “We’re the next generation up, so it’s kind of on us. We can’t expect not to vote and then complain about what’s gonna be happening.”

While voter registration efforts have gone hand-in-hand with the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that swept the county this year, there are also efforts to turn out another historically marginalized demographic. 23-year-old Rory Wheeler from the Seneca Nation Cattaraugus Territory is co-president of the youth commission for the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and a former White House tribal nations youth ambassador for President Barack Obama. Wheeler has been heavily involved in the Biden campaign.

Credit Courtesy of Rory Wheeler
Rory Wheeler, 23, from the Seneca Nation Cattaraugus Territory plans to vote in-person with his family—many of whom have never voted before—on Election Day.

“Seeing first-hand an administration that fully supported tribal rights and having President Obama probably being the best friend to Indian Country that we’ve ever seen in the White House to the retreat we’ve seen the last four years has really motivated me to ensure that we get more people out to vote,” Wheeler said. “We have a saying at the NCAI, ‘If you’re not at the table then you’re on the menu.’”

Wheeler also said there are signs of more political engagement among young Seneca this year—in support of Biden.

“A group of young people in the territory here organized a solidarity with BLM march, which is something that we haven’t seen before,” he said. “I see that there’s an awakened sense of duty to vote and to add more people that not only look like us but also can empathize with us and help us solve the many issues that impact our communities.”

Of course, not all young people are voting for Biden. McAlevey, who lives in Lancaster and works in software support, supported Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries and felt let down when Biden won the nomination. She said it feels like 2016 all over again—when she didn’t vote because she didn’t like either candidate.

Credit Courtesy of Myra McAlevey
Myra McAlevey, 26, voted early and in-person with her husband at the Lancaster Municipal Building.

“I feel like if I was to just vote for Biden, I would be voting for whatever the majority of the people want me to do. And that's not what I feel is right,” McAlevey said. “So, I'm going to use my vote towards Jo Jorgensen to help elevate the Libertarian Party and just give them more votes so they can get that 5% to get funding and to be included in the debates and just to be more of a player when it comes to national politics.”

Third parties need to win 5% of the national popular vote in order to qualify for federal campaign matching funds. The Libertarian Party has also been courting New York Democrats who aren’t Biden fans to help them keep their automatic ballot line in the state.

“Because we have an electoral college, I feel like my vote towards the popular vote doesn't make that much of a difference,” McAlevey said. “The state goes blue all the time.”

McAlevey is also switching to voting for Libertarian candidate Duane Whitmer in the competitive race for New York’s 27th Congressional District after previously voting for Democratic hopeful Nate McMurray twice.

“I don't think he'll ever win in this district because it is so red, but he’s tried,” she said. “I'm ready to move on to someone else who I think has a better chance of winning.”

Finally, there’s also the elephant-in-the-room group of young voters who might be fewer in numbers but do exist: Trump supporters.

Credit Courtesy of Seth Atisha
Seth Atisha, 21, voted by absentee ballot in his home state of Michigan.

“I completely acknowledge that I am in the minority in terms of my generation,” said Seth Atisha, 21, chairman of the Young Americans for Freedom chapter at Canisius College. “The only reason I would say it’s not necessarily easy is because of some of the vitriol I get.”

Atisha is a devout Catholic originally from the Detroit area. “My faith is definitely a large part of how I inform my voting,” he said, adding that abortion is a major issue for him. He also said he supports President’s Trumps ‘America First’ policies, limited government intervention in the economy and the Second Amendment.

"I completely acknowledge that I am in the minority in terms of my generation."

Atisha is also the son of an Iraqi immigrant who worked his way up to becoming a small business owner in the U.S., and he said there’s more to all Americans than whom we vote for for president.

“When people hear—particularly liberals—when they hear someone voted for Trump, they immediately associate certain assumptions about this person, and that’s an issue. Like, if I hear someone voted for Biden, I’m not going to hold anything against them. I’m not going to assume they are a certain way. I’m not going to call them names,” Atisha said. “I would just hope and pray that we as a country can get pack to a point or move forward to a point where I can discuss, you know, amicably with people who don’t agree with me.”

Atisha voted by absentee ballot in his battleground home state of Michigan, where the youth share of early and absentee voting is already up from 2.5% in 2016 to 9.4% this year, according to CIRCLE. A recent campus poll conducted by The Griffin student newspaper at Canisius also found that Atisha’s not completely alone as a conservative on campus: 30% of respondents said they planned to vote for Trump compared to 62% who backed Biden.

One lone student said they planned to vote for Kanye West.

Kyle Mackie is a multimedia journalist with reporting experience in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Western Balkans and New York City. She joined WBFO to cover education and more in June 2019.
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