Students hold signs at a Bernie Sanders rally in Iowa City on Jan. 30, 2016. Sanders eventually lost his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination but young people supporting him now have a chance to have their voice heard as first-time presidential election voters in fall 2016. Credit: Sarah Longmire/IowaWatch

The chance to have a voice in who the next U.S. president is and fighting for what is right, watching a new generation make a difference and even watching as states change to either red or blue are some of the many reasons young first-time voters are ready to take part in the 2016 presidential election.

“I’m most excited to be able to express my choices and have a say in who leads our country,” one of those new voters, Elena Foster, 21, an Iowa State University senior from Solon, Iowa, said.

Elena Foster, Iowa State University
Elena Foster, Iowa State University

“I think my generation has an immense power to change the world that our children will grow up in through acceptance and love. It (the earth) is changing so rapidly, and diversity is so prevalent in these modern times. The issues in this election are extremely relevant to young people today.”

And those young people are ready for action. IowaWatch interviewed 28 incoming voters from Iowa, considered to be a swing state in the election, and six other states to discover what people in this generation are passionate about, what they believe it means to be able to vote and the importance of voting.


According to Henry J. Aaron, a senior fellow in economic studies at Brookings Institution, and many others, this election is one of the most important events in American history.

Many citizens are on edge, believing that choosing between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton sets a long-term fate for the United States, and many young voters IowaWatch interviewed were conflicted with what the right choice is for them.

Nickolas Malone, 18, a freshman at the University of Illinois-Chicago who is from Riverside, Illinois, said he is split on which decision coincides with his beliefs.

“I have strong liberal political leanings, but I’m incredibly disappointed by my real options going into the election,” Malone said. “I’m torn on whether I should vote for Clinton, likely another four to eight years of stagnation under a woman I’m not entirely sure we can trust; or Trump, four to eight years of absolute chaos; or if I should throw the vote on principle.”

Two young girls show signs in support of Democrat Hillary Clinton during a Nov. 3, 2015, campaign stop in Coralville, Iowa.
Two young girls show signs in support of Democrat Hillary Clinton during a Nov. 3, 2015, campaign stop in Coralville, Iowa. Credit: Sarah Longmire/IowaWatch

As questions about trust spiral through Malone’s mind, fear also is fresh in the thoughts of these first-time voters.

“My views on the election are that this election is scary. We have a possible racist candidate and a criminal as the other,” Aaron Carter, 18, a freshman at the University of Missouri who is from Iowa City, Iowa, said, stating accusations the candidates have made during the campaign about their opponent.

Students show support for Republican Donald Trump at a Jan. 26, 2016, rally in Iowa City, Iowa.
Students show support for Republican Donald Trump at a Jan. 26, 2016, rally in Iowa City, Iowa. Credit: Sarah Longmire/IowaWatch file photo

“I don’t understand how the primaries didn’t select the best candidates for the job, but it makes me very concerned about our political process in the United States. I am voting for Gary Johnson (the Libertarian presidential candidate) even though I am a Republican because I am completely disgusted with both candidates.”

Nate Disterhoft, 18, a senior at Iowa City West High School, said he views both Clinton and Trump as being unsuited for the job.

“I am a moderate and tend to sway a little bit towards the right. I’m usually a very moderate Republican but if one candidate is clearly better than the other I can sway to the other side,” Disterhoft said. “I’m a little upset that this is the first year I can vote and the candidates in my opinion are of such low quality and resort to more mud slinging than actual politics.”

Emma Christison, University of Tampa
Emma Christison, University of Tampa

Emma Christison, 18, a freshman at University of Tampa in Florida, said that despite her fears and unease about the candidates she has decided who gets her vote. It will be Clinton.

I am a liberal, and I think Donald Trump is pretty exhausting to listen to,” Christison said. “She (Clinton) would be the first female president. The fact that she is willing to help families and women makes a huge contrast to Donald Trump who has some really disrespectful views towards women through tweets and actions.”

Jacob Heid, University of Iowa
Jacob Heid, University of Iowa

Jacob Hied, 18, a University of Iowa freshman from Iowa City, Iowa, also is won over by Clinton’s policies.

“I agree with her on a lot of issues, especially in regards to improving the environment and gun control,” Heid said. “I also think that she has the right ideas in terms of how her tax plan works and in regards to enforcing trade deals with other nations.”

But Micah Smith, 18, an Iowa City West High senior, said that after long thought, has decided to give Trump his vote.

“I know what my political views are and a lot of that comes from my parents and my family and what they believe, and it also coincides with my religious beliefs,” Smith said.

The biggest factor in this election for Smith is who gets to appoint Supreme Court justices, he said. “Hillary is obviously going to appoint people who are pro-choice and pro-gay rights, and looking at that I would probably vote against Hillary. So I am voting for Trump for that reason because that, in my mind, is the biggest lasting effect that would affect my life and the life of my children, and that is a big deal to me.”


Being granted the right to vote is a privilege gained after turning 18 and an important part of adulthood, those who were interviewed said.

Luz Brule, 18, a senior at West Irondequoit in Rochester, New York, was looking forward to having a voice in the election.

The audience for Donald Trump's Jan. 26, 2016, speech in Iowa City, Iowa.
The audience for Donald Trump’s Jan. 26, 2016, speech in Iowa City, Iowa. Credit: Sarah Longmire/IowaWatch

“Now that I can vote I can choose a president that I believe is better, and I can have a voice,” Brule said. “By voting it gives me more to say and I am able to express my opinion.”

Blake Florian, 18, of Las Vegas West Career and Technical Academy in Nevada, said voting means being responsible and independent.

“Being an adult means a lot of different things. I feel that if you are able to do everything on your own, you’re an adult,” Florian said. “So being able to vote for the first time, and on my own, makes me more of an adult.”

Florian said he sees his vote as an extension of his First Amendment right to free speech. “We should be proud and lucky to live in a country where we are able to practice such things,” he said.

RELATED: Iowa Voters Say They’re Tired
Of Presidential Campaign, But Still Show High Interest

Iowa City West High senior Molly Howes, 18, said responsibility comes with the privilege to vote.

“Now that I can finally vote, I think it’s more important for me to be educated in my decision making because it is not just a vote,” Howes said. “My say can determine what my state says, and then my state can determine who wins the presidency. So it is a pretty big responsibility, and you worry about making the right choice and all the people who it is going to effect.”

Iowa City West High school sits just west of the University of Iowa campus. Like its counterpart on the east side of Iowa City a little more than four miles to the east, City High School, it is in a largely liberal community. It is the home of many political clubs, making the school particularly politically active.

Hillary Clinton addresses her audience in Coralville, Iowa, on Nov. 3, 2015.
Hillary Clinton addresses her audience in Coralville, Iowa, on Nov. 3, 2015. Credit: Sarah Longmire/IowaWatch

Cole Piercy, 18, a senior at West, said voting ensures that others will now listen to what he has to say.

“Now that I can vote, it means that I am now more important to society than I was before,” Piercy said. “Just the fact that you are an adult means that people are now willing to listen to what I have to say about certain topics, instead of just completely turning me down because I wasn’t an adult.”

Caitlyn Mckenna, also 18 and at Iowa City West, said, “It’s crazy that the first election I’m able to vote in is the presidential election, and it sure makes me feel old to be able to say that I’m a registered voter.”

Julie Watkins, Iowa City West High School
Julie Watkins, Iowa City West High School

Fellow senior Julie Watkins, 18, said voting should not be taken for granted.

“I definitely want to participate and do my part,” Watkins, who said she will vote for Clinton, said. “It’s important because we are shaping our society, and if we allow Donald Trump to be president, what else are we going to let happen? It is the first step on a downward spiral.”


The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, gives Iowa the highest Youth Electoral Significance Index score among the 50 U.S. states. (see graphic below) This score is attained by researching youth voting patterns and trends, as well as the analysis of the youth vote influence on the 2012 and 2014 statewide races.

Autumn Moen, 18, a University of Iowa freshman from Iowa City, Iowa, said no one should take the right to vote as an Iowan youth for granted.

“This is a super weird election in which a lot of people don’t want to vote but I think the only reason for not voting is if someone really doesn’t care at all,” Moen said. “I think people don’t want to vote for either candidate but voting for the lesser of two evils is still better than not voting. Everyone should be voting.”

While Nate Disterhoft agreed on the importance, he said voting should not be mandatory. “The election system of our country is bad in the way that you really only have two candidates to vote for,” Disterhoft said. “I think if a person doesn’t like either choice that their decision to not vote is justified.”

Grace Young, Northwestern University
Grace Young, Northwestern University

Grace Young, 18, a freshman at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, said there is no excuse not to join this group of incoming voters in the November election.

“Registering to vote is easier than watching Beyoncé’s Formation music video online, unless you have the page bookmarked maybe. So many websites have links to the voter reg sites, there are people on your doorstep, on your phone, all over,” Young, from Kalona, Iowa, said.

“You probably wouldn’t even have to write, just tell them your info and shazam. There really is no excuse to not be registered.”

About the author: Fenna Semken is a junior at Iowa City West High School. She writes and edits for the school’s student newspaper, the West Side Story.


This IowaWatch story was republished by The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA) and under IowaWatch’s mission of sharing stories with media partners.


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