The issues guiding first-time Gen Z presidential voters
RICHMOND, Va. - As Election Day draws near, people are on the edge of their seats, especially those voting in the presidential election for the first time.
Generation Z makes up 10% of eligible voters in the 2020 election, according to the Pew Research Center. This percentage is expected to continue to rise at the same rate as more Gen Zers become eligible to vote. Some of the oldest members of this generation became eligible to vote in the 2016 election. Anyone born between 1997 and 2012 is considered a member of Gen Z, according to Pew.
In addition to COVID-19, there are many issues motivating young voters to the polls. Gen Z voters say they’re concerned with police violence, prison reform, mental health issues, immigration and reproductive rights.
Millennials and members of Gen Z tend to be more liberal, even those who identify as or lean Republican, according to a 2018 Pew survey. This survey also says that 43% of Gen Z Republicans are “more likely than older generations of Republicans to say blacks are treated less fairly than whites in the U.S. today.”
“Gen Zers are progressive and pro-government, most see the country’s growing racial and ethnic diversity as a good thing, and they’re less likely than older generations to see the United States as superior to other nations,” the survey found.
Below are key concerns for Gen Z voters.
Kendal Ferguson, a 20-year-old student studying criminology, law and society at George Mason University in Fairfax, cares about prison reform and combating police brutality. She wants all prisons to be government-funded and said “private prisons are morally wrong” because they profit off people who break laws.
“As for police brutality, there definitely needs to be more training for officers,” Ferguson said.
Selena Johnson, a 20-year-old student studying computer science at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, is concerned with police violence, reproductive rights and climate change.
“I want to see some sort of regulation on the big companies that are contributing to like 70% of the world’s pollution,” she said. She believes that these companies should be “in the front of our minds” when combating climate change.
The recent confirmation of Amy Coney Barret as a Supreme Court justice has drawn concern from pro-choice advocates due to her past comments on abortion. Johnson said that Roe v. Wade should not be overturned and police officers “need to face consequences for their actions.”
Jessica Callahan, a 21-year-old Republican voter from Dinwiddie, said that Barrett is a “great fit” for her position on the Supreme Court due to her educational background at Notre Dame Law School. She also believes that more racial tension will inevitably come out of this election.
“It’s going to be a bunch of name-calling and finger-pointing until some sort of civil unrest occurs,” Callahan said.
Callahan is also worried about the future of healthcare in the U.S. if Democrats win the election, as well as Second Amendment rights. She thinks health care would “go down considerably” and that “they would push even harder for restrictions” on firearms.
Ada Ezeaputa, a 20-year-old student majoring in business at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, is passionate about ensuring abortion access and ending police brutality.
“I don’t think the police need to be abolished, but I do think the whole system needs to be reformed,” she says. “When you look at countries like the U.K., their police officers don’t even carry weapons, so that already decreases the number of incidents that happen all over the world.”
In addition to police reform, she is pro-choice and believes that women should have full autonomy over their bodies.
Alyssa Tyson, a 20-year-old recent graduate of Western Governors University in Salt Lake City, wants to protect personal freedoms and mental health care.
“Mental health care is something that doesn’t get addressed a lot,” she said. “I think a lot of the problems we’re trying to address as a nation start with dealing with mental health issues and providing affordable or even free mental health care to people who need it.”
Tyson also said she is passionate about social justice issues, and that the government should not regulate reproductive rights or make laws that hinder LGBTQ rights.
Emily Wrenn, a 20-year-old student majoring in psychology at Sweet Briar College in Amherst County, considers her political views to be liberal. Wrenn describes herself as pro-choice and said the main issues she cares about are women’s rights and dismantling racism.
“One of the biggest reasons why I am swaying more to the Democratic side is that I am very much in favor of women’s rights,” she said. “We need to make sure we are on the right track in seeing that women and men receive equal pay.”
Wrenn also said that this is “the most debate on the quality of our president that I’ve ever seen,” and that “this is one of the most significant elections we’ve had in a long time.”
Despite the encouragement to vote, first-time, Gen Z voters are divided on whether they can sway the election.
Johnson said she knows many people her age will vote third party or not at all because they are disinterested in either major presidential candidate, but she thinks the youngest generation of voters has a lot of power in this election.
“I believe that we have the most diverse population of eligible voters in America’s history,” she said. “I’m voting for who I view as ‘the lesser of two evils,’ but many people my age don’t want to vote at all because the lesser of two evils is still an evil.”
In 2016, young voters ages 18 to 29 were the only age group to report increased turnout compared to 2012, with a reported turnout increase of 1.1%, according to the U.S. Census.
Ferguson, however, doesn’t believe that Gen Z has the power to sway this election.
“Our generation is still very apathetic about voting despite how vocal we are on social media and through other means,” Ferguson said. “I honestly think not a lot of people our age will bother to vote.”
Wrenn, however, believes that Gen Z could help secure a Democratic win.
“I think because we are so seemingly liberal that that will make a huge difference,” Wrenn said.
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.