James Odametey is both nervous and excited about voting in his first election, but he is concerned that he hasn’t seen more messaging about how to vote or overcome voter suppression obstacles faced especially by Black voters.
Odametey, a University of North Carolina student who plans to vote for Democratic nominee Joe Biden, is nervous about potentially encountering long wait times, understaffed polling places and white supremacists, but he said he plans to show up Nov. 3 to vote in person for his first presidential election.
Odametey, who said he would be considered “radical left” by many people, acknowledged that he considers Biden “the lesser of two evils.” He lists “hypocrisy between trying to solve the current climate crisis and the Biden/Harris campaign’s refusal to endorse the Green New Deal or denounce the fracking industry” among his frustrations.
According to the Pew Research Center, 1 in 10 eligible voters in the coming election, or about 24 million citizens, belong to Generation Z, the oldest of whom turn 23 this year. A recent survey by the organization found that the age group is more likely than any other generation to want an activist government. But while many Gen Z voters, like Odametey, plan to cast their first presidential ballots for Biden, “youth activists and organizers are not yet sold on a party many feel does not listen to them and is unsure of how to communicate with them,” The Hill reported.
It may be common to think of first-time voters as young, but that isn’t entirely accurate. Aside from Gen Z, a number of older Black voters plan to head to the polls for the first time this year. The reasons are wide-ranging, held by people who haven’t felt that the political system has been accessible to them, as well as those who weren’t eligible to vote for reasons like citizenship.
In general, it often takes a while for eligible voters to become engaged in the political process, said Jan Leighley, a government professor at American University who has studied voter turnout. Leighley said young people tend to become more engaged in the political process in their late 20s or their early 30s.
“Voting is a complex task with the steps and information that’s required. When you have a lot going on — like you’re heading off to college or you’re in your first job or you don’t have a job, you’re caring for family members in the middle of a pandemic — it’s harder for young people to carve out the time and get all the pieces together,” she said. “Once you have that experience, you’re more likely to be contacted by political parties and candidates. You may be more likely to see that the person you voted for actually won or that the issues you cared about are continuing to be relevant.”
Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics
This year, rapper Snoop Dogg revealed that he planned to vote in his first election. “I ain’t never voted a day in my life, but this year I think I’m going to get out and vote because I can’t stand to see this punk in office one more year,” he said recently, referring to President Donald Trump.
Snoop Dogg, 49, who has regularly publicly criticized Trump, told Los Angeles radio personality Big Boy that he previously believed he couldn’t vote because of his criminal record. “For many years, they had me brainwashed thinking that you couldn’t vote because you had a criminal record,” he said. “I didn’t know that. My record’s been expunged, so now I can vote.”
Octavia Goredema, 41, is voting for the first time this year, too, but for a much different reason. She has always been politically active, but she didn’t become a U.S. citizen until last year.
Goredema, who was born in Nottingham and raised in the Midlands of England, moved to Los Angeles from London for work in 2005.
“One of my first memories is delivering leaflets and campaigning for the Labour Party in the ’80s,” she said. Goredema donated in the 2016 election, but her green card didn’t permit her to vote.
Shortly after she became a citizen last year, she held a fundraiser for Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., who was still running her own presidential campaign at the time. The event allowed Goredema to introduce her daughters to Harris.
“It’s a moment they will never forget. We have that photo framed in their bedroom so they see it,” she said. “My eldest daughter had actually just run for office for the first time. She was elected student council rep that year, and so Kamala asked her about it and about what she campaigned for and the experience. My daughter had the opportunity to tell her, and that was a really special moment.”
Goredema said she plans to vote for the Biden/Harris ticket by mail. “I’m so proud to be a U.S. citizen, and I want the best for all of us,” she said. “I want the best for my children, who are growing up here. This is such an unprecedented time for all of us. And so this matters to me more than anything.”
Nia Moore is heavily involved in politics, like Goredema, albeit for the opposing party. Moore, 20, of Minnetonka, Minnesota, didn’t grow up in a house that supported the Republican Party, but she said she has always had conservative views.
“Even though my views for the most part do align with the Republican Party’s platform, I would say I wasn’t entirely comfortable calling myself a Republican until after I attended my last Turning Point event, the Black Leadership Summit,” Moore said, referring to the conservative nonprofit. “After that, I kind of just sought out friends that shared my political affiliations and leanings.”
According to FiveThirtyEight, about 10 percent of Black voters support Trump. “That is similar to 2016, as well, and again reflects broader partisan dynamics — surveys over the last three decades have shown about 1 of every 10 Black Americans identifies as a Republican,” it reported.
Moore, a student at the University of St. Thomas in the Twin Cities, spoke on stage alongside Trump this year during a Turning Point event. Today, she also works as the deputy campaign manager for Lacy Johnson, a Black Republican who is running against Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.
Moore said that her grandmother has “voted Democrat her entire life, and she hates [Trump’s] guts,” but that her parents have decided to vote for the president this year, despite not identifying as Republicans. They didn’t vote for Trump in 2016.
“People can call the president racist if they want to, but the legislation he’s put in place has not and will not hurt the Black community in comparison to things that Joe Biden is advocating for or has done,” she said. “If the Black community is something that’s important to you, which for [her parents] it is, you would know that Joe Biden is not the answer.”
While Odametey, Goredema and Moore are all politically involved to varying degrees, that isn’t the case for all first-time voters. Leighley said it’s often a challenge to reach them, as opposed to people who have previously voted.
“Mobilizing first-time voters is incredibly challenging, because how do you get to them? There’s no list,” she said. “Contacting your partisans and people who have voted before, that’s the most efficient way to produce votes in the amount of money [campaigns are] spending. That’s what’s started earlier in the process, because we have data on who those people are. It’s only as you approach Election Day when you go fishing in another spot, which can be new or undecided voters. At that point, it’s oftentimes too late.”