5 first-time voters of color explain what's driving them to the polls

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With less than a month to go, the 2020 presidential election is shaping up to be one that will stand out in political memory for some time. It's not simply the Democratic push to remove President Trump from office following years of critique of his authoritarian leanings or Trump's hints that he may not go quietly that is making this year unlike any other. It's also the fact that this election is occurring in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic — which has claimed the lives of over 216,000 people in the U.S. so far — and immediately following a summer defined by civil unrest as protesters nationwide rallied against systemic racism in policing.

Early on, voters saw the potential consequences of heading to the polls in-person in a pandemic when coronavirus cases spiked in Wisconsin following an in-person election. Since then, Democrats have pushed voting by mail as an alternative to ensure that everybody gets a chance to cast their vote safely. However, Trump's transparent attempt to sabotage mail-in voting by consistently attacking the United States Postal Service has made the process even more stressful, with some expressing concerns that their ballots may not be counted at all.

In many ways, the 2020 presidential election is unprecedented. There are a number of issues exacerbated by the pandemic driving people to the polls: climate change, racial justice, housing insecurity, health care. Amid all of this, it's easy to miss the voices and experiences of new voters who are trying to navigate the system for the first time. Mic spoke with five youth of color about what's driving their votes this year, and their experiences navigating a political landscape that nobody in living memory has ever really seen before.

Emely Morel, 21

I'm a first-generation college student studying in Philadelphia. I am the daughter of two working-class immigrants from the Dominican Republic, and I'm originally from New Jersey.

As a first-time voter, I hate that this is the situation we're being thrown into. I missed the 2016 election by 11 days, but I was still actively campaigning against Donald Trump. Now that I'm old enough to vote in this presidential election, my politics have definitely changed and pushed further to the left. Elections don't solve the systemic issues in this country, yet the fate of the election is placed on the backs of people of color without acknowledging the effects of voter suppression and mass incarceration. We aren't the ones responsible for Donald Trump's victory but "blue check" Twitter is putting the pressure on us. It doesn't do anything to make me feel better; if anything, I feel even more defeated.

Once again the same people telling us to vote aren't the ones redistributing their wealth, mobilizing on the streets, or contributing to community aid, but somehow it's on us working-class people of color to vote him out of office. We're already going through enough — why and how is this our fault?

Deciding whether I should vote has been incredibly hard. As we've witnessed, elections do not bring about the necessary change. If circumstances were different I would probably be a lot more comfortable deciding not to since this system does not give a damn about me, but the biggest thing pushing me to the polls is the current pandemic. There are a lot of things that I know won't change for people of color if Biden wins (i.e. defunding/abolishing the police), but the way the current administration has been handling the pandemic is too harmful to our communities for me to sit there idly. Coronavirus is affecting people of color in disproportionate numbers and our communities are suffering the most because of it. With that, COVID-19 is something that can be addressed based on the results of the election, and I at least have some hope that a Biden victory will do something about it compared to the disastrous Republican efforts we've witnessed.

I'm registered to vote in Massachusetts where my parents now live, so I'll be voting by mail with an absentee ballot. I'm definitely concerned about getting my ballot, making sure it arrives and is counted for, the transition of power and the results that night, etc. There are too many things that can go wrong, and nothing about the current state of affairs has me feeling safe and secure.

I believe that the only way to fix the issues wrong with this settler state is through means of revolution, but I personally decided to vote because too much is on the line, especially for queer people, people of color, and the pandemic. I stand in solidarity with everyone choosing not to participate; we should not be forced into choosing between a racist cop and racist sexual abuser.

Munira Alimire, 20

I'm a college junior from Minnesota. I am honestly feeling super disillusioned and tired. I voted early by mail! My biggest concern is that my ballot will take forever to be processed and that election results will be delayed.

I feel like not much is going to change if Biden wins, especially in the realm of settler colonialism, imperialism, and climate change. I feel like a lot of people act like elections are how you change the country, and I’m acutely aware of how a lot of things that I stand for aren’t even on the ballot.

What’s driving me to the polls though, even though I feel like not much is going to change, is there is still so much at stake. Over the summer, there was an ICE/DHS decision about college students needing to be taking in-person classes for them to not lose their visas. That really opened my eyes to how people who are not citizens are impacted by the Trump administration. I realized the Trump administration was using college students as a bargaining chip to reopen America, and it made me recognize that electoral politics really fucking matters and it’s of absolute importance that we get Trump out. I have a responsibility to my friends who can’t vote and aren’t protected in the ways I am to vote.

This summer though I’ve also just learnt so much and I feel like voting for president is harm reduction and nothing else. We also forget the importance of local elections — your councilors, county commissioners, and other local officials impact your life in momentous ways. I’m voting because I want to have a say in local policies.

AJ Addae, 20

I’m graduating from Northeastern University this fall, and I’m a first-time voter. As a first-time voter, particularly one that dreams of liberation, I am voting reluctantly. In fact, I would say that every time I vote, it might be a little bit reluctant. While I am grateful for my right to vote, it is no secret that we are living within a failed democracy that thrives off of systematic oppression.

This is not a democracy that I am particularly thrilled about. I used to struggle with my tendency to critique the voting system rather than feeling grateful. However, I do the work to assure myself that I must not feel guilty.

The central issue that drives me to the polls is simply that we deserve better than we have now. I plan to vote in person, early voting, with my mom. I think it’ll be a really special moment for her (and at some point retrospectively for me) because it’s my first time voting.

What I’d like to add: I do urge folks to vote. I’m not against the idea of voting. I am, however, against the principle that we as people, regardless of the outcome of the election, do not have the power to change a system that exists to serve and prioritize a group of people in power.

Cordenne Brewster, 21

I will turn 22 about a week after the election. Because of the odd timing of my birthday, I wasn't able to vote in the 2016 presidential election. It's probably worth mentioning that I'm Black and queer.

I think a lot of people feel like they're helping sustain democracy or else feeling unfortunate that our candidates aren't optimal, but I'm much more cynical. But because of that, I'm actually pretty proud of the research I did. A lot of politics these days are guided by rhetoric on either side, whether that's the inflammatory language from a certain, obvious candidate or niche quotes like "vote for the lesser evil" or "#settleforbiden." My vote wasn't about the "obvious" choice; it included months of crawling through policy and political records as well as analyzing the historical role of the state in general.

The central issue driving me to the polls is imperialism. And that won't change no matter who wins. Of course, I care about climate change, queer rights, the welfare of Black and brown people, and everything else, but in my research it's been clear that neither of the dominant parties care too much in this regard either. What really drove me to the polls were the other things on the ballot like attorney general, state treasurer, and state senator to name a few, plus the ballot questions that will have a direct influence on our local politics.

I voted in early October. There was a long line at City Hall before 11:30 a.m., which is when you could officially drop off your mail-in ballots. I got there just minutes before and the whole process took about 30 minutes. It was swift and there really wasn't any trouble. The same day I got an email saying my ballot had been processed. The next day I got another email that my ballot had been received.

Nafisa Hoque, 18

I am a Bangladeshi-American college student who has been studying restorative justice since middle school. I also have been organizing around local communities in New York City for around two and half years. Most of the communities I have organized around are my local communities of Hispanic, Latino, South Asian, and Arab youth in South Brooklyn. The politics that inform my ideas and work are largely influenced by the fact that I first learned about Mariame Kaba’s abolitionist work at the age of 12. To this day, I am still learning and in awe of her incredible, expansive ideas about what our future should look like.

You would think the conventional first-time voter is excited about voting, especially for an election cycle that is as messy as this upcoming one. However, as anticlimactic as it sounds, the election to me is just as disappointing to me as realizing that the solutions I look for won’t be found through electoral politics. Because I am a student of abolition who organizes and has seen the impact of community-driven practices, work, and ideas firsthand, voting for the first time seems almost negligible. I will still be voting, but I genuinely do not believe the change that youth of color want can be even slightly achieved through casting a ballot. It’s the after-school high school club meetings, weekend organizing sessions, community gatherings in neighborhoods’ places of worship, and protests held around hyperlocal issues where I see the change I wish to see. Community-driven education, activism, aid efforts, and organizing is what I return to and is exactly what I think a lot of youth of color seek haven in.

I do not believe politicians ultimately serve the best interests of the everyday people. However, the one issue I use to gauge whether a politician’s views agree with my own, is their stance on foreign policy. From what I have seen, if a politician holds and proposes anti-imperialist views, all the other voter issues, such as race relations, prisons, health care, economy, and environmental policies all coincide with my own views.

I will be casting my vote through a mail-in absentee ballot. The counting of votes that are being casted through mail-in absentee ballots will be interesting to see throughout this election cycle, especially with the voter suppression tactics of the current administration. Given these voter suppression tactics the United States has always enforced (whether directly or indirectly), I am aware that voting in the U.S. only has an insignificant impact. People, for some reason, think America is truly a democratic country, when many know this is not true. I have no reservations that the obsession of voting in America comes from the superficial idea that America is built on the ground of moral perfection and that it cannot do anything wrong. However, we know that this country continues and will continue to fail most people, especially marginalized people. Whether it’s the hours of waiting on long lines, the deliberate incompletion of voter registration applications, not having the right to cast a vote, or not having accessible facilities to cast a ballot, voting day will always ensure a mess — a mess that I hope will push people to understand voting in America is nowhere near close to being a solution to the problems we face. The systemic issues many of us young people of color face and care for won’t be solved by politicians and/or electoral politics, but by the relationships we build through community efforts, aid, and organizing.

If you are a young person and you care enough to vote, I would urge you to understand the marginal extent of the vote in America. It is okay to realize that electoral politics cannot create the solutions we long to have, however one’s concern to finding solutions shouldn’t stop at that realization. Understand that the solutions we want and need will come through communal efforts. Attend a meeting of a grassroots organization based in your neighborhood! Look up any social groups that align with your own social views through social media! Talk to any politically oriented people in your neighborhood and ask how you can get engaged with local issues with or without them! Look to your own local community and see what the hyperlocal level of political and social work looks like! Try to find ways to get involved at the local level and continually inform yourself of what sense of politics makes up you! Our sense of politics comes down to relationships we have with other people, so we must make sure those politics are held when it comes to any interpersonal encounters and relationships we have.

Everything I know of when it comes to the ideas of abolition, especially prison abolition, comes from the works of Angela Davis, Dr. [Ruth Wilson] Gilmore, and Mariame Kaba. So, if you are also interested in abolitionist ideas and alternatives to justice and conflict resolution, please read their works.