The future is now for first-time voters

By Jenna Thomas

Oct 28, 2020 | News | 0 comments

//Volunteers with New Era Colorado at their booth on the CU Boulder campus on National Voter Registration Day, Sept. 22. Photo provided by Michael Carter of New Era. 

The time to mail in your ballots in Colorado has now passed. But never fear! You can still register in-person until Nov. 3. The locations of polling places for registration and voting and drop-off boxes can be found here.

With Election Day quickly approaching, first-time voters are on a mission to make a difference as they confront record unemployment, growing student debt, and healthcare uncertainty. Many believe the future of America will come down to the votes of Generation Z, those between the ages of 18-23.     

Kristen Figueroa, 19, is a proud member of this generation. Armed with passion, ambition, and finally a voting voice, she’s ready to be heard.

“I feel like the president that we have now is putting all of Americans’ lives in danger,” Figueroa said. “I have two younger siblings, and the America they’re growing up in is very scary. I don’t want them to grow up in that, so that’s why I’m voting.” 

Galvanized by the clear differences between the presidential candidates, Figueroa, an aspiring elementary school teacher and Latina empowerment activist, said she is laser-focused on the immeasurable impact of the Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies. 

“I want a leader who will support minority communities. Someone who isn’t openly racist or racist at all,” Figueroa said. “Whoever wins, I’d like to see the children let out of the cages and ICE detention [centers]. That should be the first step.” 

Following high school graduation, Figueroa took a year off to save money for college. Today, she’s enrolled at Front Range Community College, but every day is a challenge. Diagnosed with narcolepsy, Figueroa is working three jobs to pay for the cost of schooling, medication and everyday basics. 

“I’ve been rationing my prescription because it costs $130 a month, and I don’t have the money to spend on that right now. I’m paying $2,900 for just two classes,” Figueroa said. “It’s ridiculous.”  

Figueroa joins a generation of Americans racking up debt while earning a degree. Each year 70% of college graduates begin a new chapter of life in the red. The average debt is around $30,000, but many borrowers owe $100,000 or more, according to Savingforcollege.com.

College debt is one of the main issues that drives New Era Colorado, an organization working on behalf of young people in our state. 

“We want to give young people a seat at the table and overcome some of the most common obstacles that they face,” said Michael Carter of New Era Colorado. 

New Era members—with the help of the nation’s youngest Secretary of State, Jena Griswold—worked to pass the Colorado Votes Act in 2019. The act improves access to voting for college students by guaranteeing drop boxes on all public higher education institution campuses. It also allows 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections as long as they turn 18 by the general election. For the first time in state history, eligible 17-year-old Coloradans cast more than 10,000 votes in the 2020 presidential primaries.   

After passing the Colorado Votes Act—a law that only 18 other states in the country have on the books—Carter and fellow group members registered more than 14,000 young people to vote this year despite COVID-19 challenges.  

“Their future demands and reflects the need to show up and shape it,” Carter said. “I think young people are really starting to see their power.” 

And there’s power in numbers. According to the Pew Research Center, Figueroa and her peers make up part of the second-largest voting bloc in the U.S. Right now, millennials and Generation Z account for 37% of the 2020 electorate.    

“This election is squarely focused on their future. Young people have the power to elect leaders who will fight for their values and choosing to sit this election out is choosing the status quo,” said Kyra deGruy of Young Invincibles Rocky Mountain, an organization advocating for the needs of today’s youth. 

Figueroa has been anxiously waiting to flex her power as a first-time voter, adding she’s holding fast to new possibilities for her generation. 

“A lot of other people don’t have this chance, so I really do want to take advantage of it,” Figueroa said.  

Mayra Valdez is one of those people. Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, Valdez’s mother decided to cross the border to give her children a better life when she was just a baby. 

“I’m a DACA recipient. I’ve lived in the United States for the past 18 years. This is the only place I know,” Valdez said.  

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, is an immigration policy created under the Obama administration that defers deportation for one year for qualified individuals brought to the U.S. illegally when they were children. Every year, Valdez pays a $500 fee and undergoes an intensive background check to re-apply for the program.   

Today, Valdez is a member of IGNITE, a non-profit organization helping empower young women who want to run for public office. While unable to vote herself, she’s encouraging other members of minority communities to make their voices heard.  

“I feel like there’s a lot at stake in this election, from the Supreme Court nominee to how COVID is being handled to future policy decisions, especially as a DACA recipient, having Trump in office hasn’t been a good experience,” Valdez said. 

Three years ago, President Trump attempted to dismantle the DACA program, however, that move was stopped by the courts. This past summer, his administration announced it would reject new DACA applications.   

The Pew Research Center found that people of color will account for a third of eligible voters in 2020, their largest share ever, driven by long-term increases among certain groups, especially Hispanics. 

Filled with determination and resolve, deGruy believes Figueroa, Valdez and Generation Z can ultimately save American democracy. 

“We’re in a time of competing crises and choosing to engage in politics right now is choosing to be a part of the solution. Young voters have the opportunity to shape the future of our country and our world,” deGruy said. “If young adults, the most racially and ethnically diverse generations the country has ever seen, sit this election out, human rights, environmental protection, health coverage and major steps toward equity are at stake.”  

About 41% of 18-to 29-year-olds in Colorado voted in 2018—a 13% increase over the previous midterm, according to a study by Tufts University. That number put Colorado second for youth turnout among the 34 states with available data. Valdez hopes an increase in youth votes in this upcoming election will signal an end to repugnant racism.

“During Trump’s inauguration, I was working at a Mexican restaurant and someone without knowing my background said I was getting deported now, and that my whole family was getting deported too,” Valdez said. 

That experience motivated her to help others exercise their right to vote while hoping she’ll eventually be able to do the same.  

“I dream of one day of becoming a U.S. citizen and being able to vote,” Valdez said.

Figueroa plans to watch the presidential election on Nov. 3 alongside her mother. She is counting on the winner to rise to the many challenges hitting homes across America. 

“At the end of the day, it’s their actions that matter,” Figueroa said.


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