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First-time presidential voters take ‘a very important step’

The youngest of a record number of voters speak their minds

Multiple districts — Among a record high number of voters in Tuesday’s election — at least 159.8 million, according to NBC News projections — millions of young Americans were casting their ballots for president for the first time. About one in 10 eligible voters was projected to be between 18 and 23, the leading edge of so-called Generation Z born after 1996, according to the Pew Research Center.

Some of those young voters had come straight from school, where they may have been studying U.S. history or American government. 

School News Network was curious about why those first-time voters went to the polls or filed absentee ballots. What did the act of voting mean to them, especially in such a high-stakes election?  What issues did they hope to influence with their vote? And what did it feel like to become voting participants in our democracy for the first time? 

We posed those questions and more to a handful of students across Kent County, who reflect the increasing diversity of their generation — and their variety of political views. In so doing, we respected the privacy of their choices. 

‘I think I made a little bit of difference.’

— Christopher Sanchez
Christopher Sanchez

Christopher Sanchez
Grand Rapids Innovation Central

Christopher walked out of Standale Baptist Church shortly after 8 a.m. on a cold and bright Tuesday morning, having just cast his first vote in a presidential election. It took him about half an hour from when he got in line, after walking 10 minutes from his home to the polling place.

He called the experience “really unique and special. I’m glad I took the opportunity to do it. I think I made a little bit of difference.” 

It was not only his first vote, but the first one in his family. 

His motivation? “Because it really does affect how our nation takes its next steps towards whatever problems it can fix,” said Christopher, a student in Central’s Academy of Design & Construction, where he’s taking Advanced Placement courses in psychology, statistics, and language and writing.  

“It’s a very important step that I take,” he said of his vote. “Now that I turned 18, I want to take advantage of it and not take it for granted.”

‘It made me feel good about who I voted for, even though it was still a hard decision.’

— Ayonna Brown
Ayonna Brown

Ayonna Brown
Ottawa Hills High School — GRCC Middle College 

For Ayonna, her first presidential vote was a family affair. She took her absentee ballot down to Grand Rapids City Hall with her parents, Albert and Marvela Brown.

“It gave me a greater outlook than if I had done it by myself,” Ayonna said. “It was helpful to have more wisdom, as far as the things they tell me and sit down and talk to me about.”

Some of the things they talk about are more support of public schools and the high costs of college, the latter of which will impact her younger brother, Alijah. She discussed the issues and candidates’ strengths with her folks before settling on their choice for president.

“It felt great,” she said of her vote. “It made me feel good about who I voted for, even though it was still a hard decision.” 

‘Now it feels like I have had a say in this presidential election, no matter who wins.’

— Larson Bukowski
Larson Bukowski

Larson Bukowski
Rockford High School

Larson started to get interested in politics after the 2016 election. By the time Election Day 2020 arrived he was seriously jazzed up. 

“I was genuinely pretty excited about it all day,” he said. After school he went straight to Crossroads Church, where he cast his vote in an election he’s been tracking closely. 

“It felt fantastic,” Larson said. “Now it feels like I have had a say in this presidential election, no matter who wins. We all voted, we all used our right to vote, and in the end we just have to move forward.”  

A student in Advanced Placement U.S. government and politics, he sees serious consequences in the outcome, including U.S. policy on climate change, renewable energy and trade. He hopes to study international relations at Georgetown University and work in public service.

‘I don’t want to be part of the problem, I want to be part of the solution.’

— Aliya Hall
Aliya Hall

Aliya Hall
Godwin Heights High School

Just before Aliya turned in her absentee ballot on Oct. 27, she took a selfie with it and posted the picture online with the tagline “first time voter in tha house.”

“It is very important to vote,” Aliya said. “I turned 18 this year and it is a really big deal. I grew up with the belief that every vote counts and that if you don’t vote, then you are part of the problem. I don’t want to be part of the problem, I want to be part of the solution.”

The best way to help your community and make a positive change is to vote. Aliya said, adding she hopes that the push to encourage people to vote will continue for future elections. 

‘Everyone’s got the right to vote so it’s important to go out there and do it.’

— Ben Ryan
Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan
Comstock Park High School

Ben gained his right to vote for the first time with an Oct. 23 birthday. He said he is one of only about 10 to 15 seniors out of a class of 130 who turned 18 before the election.

He took advantage of the opportunity.

“Everyone’s got the right to vote so it’s important to go out there and do it,” Ben said.

He found the process easier than expected. He voted early by picking up a ballot at Alpine Township hall last week and returning it the next day. Not knowing the wait times for in-person voting, he said he felt like getting it done early.

‘I feel like I was almost voting for classmates and everyone else who can’t vote yet.’

— Jules Hidalgo
Jules Hidalgo

Jules Hidalgo
Northview High School 

The Northview senior walked before sunrise with his mother to Riverside Middle School, down the street from his house, to vote in person. After the media speculation about possible chaotic polling places, Jules said the 40 or so people ahead of him “just kind of seemed calm, like it was just another thing they had to do that day.” He arrived at 6:45 a.m., and said he was headed to school by around 7:30. “There were 15 booths, so it moved pretty quickly.”

Jules said he relied on social media ads and posts and discussions with peers for most of his pre-election research. He admits he didn’t realize until after he cast his ballot that there was a second side with more races and two proposals. 

Why did he choose this election to vote for the first time? “That’s a pretty good question, to be honest. It’s been such a divisive election and I just felt like, there are others fighting for their causes who can’t vote. … I feel like I was almost voting for classmates and everyone else who can’t vote yet.”

Joanne Bailey-Boorsma, Karen Gentry and Morgan Jarema contributed to this story

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers Rockford and Grand Rapids. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.

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