Young voters showed up in 2020. What brought them to the polls?

Bernie Sanders car rally for Joe Biden in Warren, Oct. 6, 2020 | Andrew Roth

With the aid of the state’s constitutional expansion of absentee voting, and undeterred by a pandemic, Michigan voters showed up in force for the 2020 general election.

Overall, over 5.5 million Michiganders made their voices heard in the election — a new record. Early indicators are that young voters ages 18 to 29 made up a historically large portion of that turnout. According to Tufts University, Michigan saw the most dramatic increase in young voters participating in the early voting process compared to 13 other key states.

Media outlets called the election for President-elect Joe Biden over current President Donald Trump. In Michigan, Biden beat Trump by 146,107 votes, 51% to 48%.

NextGen Michigan, which is part of the umbrella group NextGen America founded by billionaire and former Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer, launched a grassroots effort in the state to get progressives elected up and down the ballot. State Director Jay Williamson said Michiganders “can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that days of moral, decent leadership lie ahead” with Biden’s election.

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“We know that young people are sick and tired of neurotic mandates from a delusional, narcissistic president. Joe Biden’s victory is a win for science, a win for our future, and a win for the people of Michigan,” Williamson added.

With so much at stake, what policies motivated the youngest generation of Michigan voters to cast their ballot in 2020?

University of Michigan sophomore Andrew Schaeffler, 19, told the Advance he felt “so honored” to cast his very first presidential vote for Biden and other Democrats down the ticket.

“My vote finally counted,” Schaeffler said. 

Schaeffler, who is the co-founder and leader of Students with Biden at U of M, said that he is excited to see Biden pass strong measures on foreign policy, higher education and climate change. 

“On pretty much every level, I thought that he has the right experience to be president. hHe would be someone who could work across the aisle,” Schlaeffer said. “He is the right president who would be able to stand strong as a Democratic president, but while not forgetting about the other half of the country, and like he said being an American president.”

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Yara Barbosa, 24, of Kentwood, officially gained citizenship in the U.S. just days before the presidential election and the very next day went to her local clerk’s office to cast an absentee ballot for Biden. 

“It was just very rewarding to be able to vote, and I’m happy with the results. That was like one of the best days of my life,” Barbosa said.

Barbosa is a high school teacher at Kentwood Public Schools and is looking forward to the Biden administration making changes to the educational system that benefits poor communities and their students, especially for her students, many of whom are immigrants. 

Yara Barbosa

“A majority of my student body that I teach, we’re at a very, very diverse school, So, I see a sea of colorful faces every single day,” Barbosa said. “I work with English language learners, so they are all immigrants. So, it’s always nice to connect with them in that way. But I know that they unfortunately can’t share my excitement or they can’t relate to, yet, becoming a citizen or they can’t relate yet  to voting even if some of them are 18.”

Jono Mammel, 23, of Rochester Hills, said Biden was “far from” his first choice for Democratic presidential nominee, but ended up getting his vote simply for “the fact that he wasn’t Trump.”

“That was the big one,” Mammel said. “I wasn’t thrilled with most of the policies [Biden] sent our way,” like being pro-fracking and not being on board with Medicare for All. “But I will take that over outright fascism, if I have to choose.”

Mammel said the fact that Biden plans to listen to scientists and develop a better COVID-19 response is a good sign, and “far better than we have” right now. But he wishes Biden’s policies were more progressive so he could have voted more for the former vice president than against Trump.

“There are some people I’ve spoken to who were a bit more excited about his policies. But the consensus was, yeah, we just we got to get this guy [Trump] out of here,” Mammel said.

Grace Kiter

Grand Valley State University student Grace Kiter, 19, of Lake Odessa, said she just wanted to see a candidate in the White House who could unify the country.

For her, the best option on the ballot to do that was Biden, so she went to the polls for the first time to cast her vote. 

“I really just hate how [Trump] represents our country and makes us look, that’s my biggest thing,” Kiter said. “I hadn’t felt patriotic or good about America in a long time. … Really more than anything, I know it sounds cheesy, but I do want unity. I, myself, have let Trump get between me and some friends and some family members, and I’m definitely not proud of that, because at the end of the day, as Joe [Biden] says oftentimes in his speeches and what his campaign was about was that he’s an American candidate.”

Talking about politics has become the norm in Kiter’s social circles largely because of what they are seeing on social media, she said. 

“I feel like if (social media) influencers aren’t political, they get a lot of backlash from their fans … and I think that pushes a really big wave for political activism,” Kiter said. “If you aren’t political it’s kind of seen as selfish, a privilege. I think social media has definitely been a big influence on that.”

Vanessa Jacobitz, 25, of Muskegon, had always felt like her vote never mattered, but after living through four years under Trump’s administration as a Black woman, she said this time she had to make her voice heard.

Vanessa Jacobitz

“I guess, for me the biggest thing is seeing how much of an influence Trump has had,” Jacobitz said. “Just something that I felt personally as a Black woman in America is that people just felt a lot more comfortable in the rude manner  they would speak to me or in the way that they would look at me.”

Jacobitz also said that electing Kamala Harris, the first Black and Indian American woman to serve as vice president will be “a huge step for women and people of color.”

She wants to see the United States’ presence on the world stage improve under Biden’s leadership.

“Especially in these past four years, America has made itself a laughing stock when it comes to the world,” Jacobitz said. “I’m hoping that Biden’s able to go to these world meetings and  show that we are civilized, cultured and that we’re not just a bunch of terrorists, honestly. We’re not just a bunch of hateful, spiteful, ignorant people.”

Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, immigration and criminal justice. She is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or listening to podcasts, she loves art and design, discovering new music, being out in nature and spending time with her two cats Rainn and Remy.
Allison Donahue
Allison Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.