First Time Voters Take on the 2020 Election

Amidst a pandemic and civil rights movement, Gen Z’s youngest adults tackled their first presidential election


Photos by Mia Leon

Words by Lily Wobbe

2020 has brought countless firsts for Generation Z — a pandemic, civil unrest regarding police brutality, new global tensions, and the impeachment of a president, just to name a few. But in the past few days, a new first has emerged for many high school seniors: voting in a presidential election. In this year’s election, Gen Z’s newest 18-year-olds became part of the 24 million members of the generation that were eligible to vote. With this new experience came plenty of challenges, but also moments of hope for the future. One new voter, Shelby Hamm, a senior at Martha Layne Collins High School, voted early in person at Marriott East in Louisville. After being interested in politics for years and even volunteering with a big campaign in this election, she was excited to vote and voice her opinions. 

“I was just super thankful to be able to be part of this election, since it is so crucial,” she said. 

Hamm was one of more than a million early voters in Kentucky, and she said her experience was very positive. In addition to being COVID-safe by using masks and social distancing, the poll workers were supportive of first time voters and even clapped when they dropped off their ballots. 

“They were so enthusiastic — any time someone came through and they were a first time voter, they all cheered for them,” she recalled. 

Photos by Mia Leon

This enthusiasm was shared by fellow first time voter, Luke Johnson, a senior at Trinity High School.

 “Once I got into the polling building, I wasn’t nervous anymore because everyone was so welcoming. It went quickly, and I’m just happy I did it,” Johnson said. 

He voted in person on Election Day at Waggener High School, and said everyone was welcoming and made him feel good about his political participation. 

Johnson was excited about voting and finally being able to voice his opinions, but was apprehensive because of the pandemic. In the months and days leading up to the election, he wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. Because of all the twists and turns that 2020 has already brought, it was easy to lose sight of just how critical this year’s election was. 

“As it got closer and closer to the election, I started to realize how big of an election this is actually going to be,” he said.

After voting, though, he knew he had fulfilled his civic duty and was relieved to have it over with. Being a first time voter came with its stresses, but for Johnson, it was worth it for the sense of accomplishment afterward.

“Going in as a first time voter is already scary because you’ve finally formed your opinion and you have all that together, but on top of all that, this huge election is happening,” Johnson said. “It’s just kind of scary, but also exciting. It’s a weird experience to finally be able to vote, with all of this going on.”

Young voters were also excited about the numerous options to vote this year, including in person voting, early voting, and sending absentee ballots, among others. 

“It’s unfortunate that these changes came from a global pandemic, but I think it’s been amazing that we’ve been able to have early voting, mail in voting — it’s been so much easier for people based on what they need,” Hamm said. 

While she voted early in person, she was thankful that her friends and family had other options. Her grandparents and boyfriend were able to vote via mail-in ballot, which made the process much smoother.  

Lila McGuirk, a senior at duPont Manual High School, took advantage of these new readily available voting methods by voting via absentee ballot. Absentee ballots in Kentucky allowed Kentuckians who were concerned about COVID-19 or were otherwise unable to vote in person the chance to vote. McGuirk found the process relatively simple, and she was glad that she could fill out the ballot from the comfort of her home. 

However, absentee ballots presented unique issues. Around the country, hundreds of thousands of ballots were at risk of being rejected because of a number of issues, including missing signatures or ballots being mailed or received late. Although Kentucky isn’t a crucial battleground state, these issues with ballots are especially worrying in swing states where just a few thousand votes can make all the difference. 

“I was signing the front of the envelope and I signed it really precisely to match my drivers license, because [a friend of mine] told me they would reject my ballot or something if they didn’t match,” McGuirk said.

In addition to the election being impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, it was also impacted by this summer’s expansion of the Black Lives Matter movement and its protests. As more and more young people participated in the movement and got involved in politics, more young voters also took the movement into consideration when casting their ballots. Along with participating in activism on social media, more young voters were inspired to register and vote.

“With all of this stuff happening, it’s made people want to learn more about politics. All of this is affecting so much of our lives that we just want to have our opinions heard,” McGuirk said. 

She also discussed the growth of social media activism through the Black Lives Matter movement, noting how the spread of information and discourse allowed more people to become informed on important issues and ultimately encouraged them to vote.

 “I think our whole generation is starting to really get involved in politics and stuff like that, and voting is so, so important. I think a lot of kids our age are becoming more aware, which is so nice to see,” she said.

Additionally, with so many Gen Z voters participating in this year’s election, pop culture played an even bigger role in this year than in past elections. Social media posts circulated for months leading up to the election. Countless memes were created about the candidates. And, of course, rap icon Kanye West appeared on the ballot. 

“I think the most shocking thing was that I knew Kanye was on the ballot, but when I actually saw it, I literally screamed. I was like, oh my god, this cannot be real,” McGuirk said.

Pop culture references aside, all three first time voters agreed that being informed, especially as a younger generation, is extremely important. Because Gen Z is and will be the next generation of voters, paying attention to politics and being informed citizens is imperative before casting ballots. 

“I think everybody should be informed, because everybody needs to be starting to form their own opinions and the more people are informed, the better they can form their own opinion. Nobody wants to be told what their opinion should be. If people are informed, they can form their own opinion for themselves,” Johnson said. 

Hamm also noted that while being informed about the main candidates in an election is important, it isn’t the only thing voters need to be informed on. 

“When I went in to vote, not only was I voting for candidates, but I was also voting for more than that. I was voting on amendments. There’s just so much more to it,” she said.

So, what advice would these first time voters give to future first timers? Get involved.

“I would tell them that their voice really does matter, and they should definitely get involved and know what’s going on around them,” McGuirk said. “This is our country. We do have the power to change it.”