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Youth, new citizens weigh first presidential vote

All across America, young people and newly naturalised immigrants are preparing to vote in their very first US presidential election. takes a closer look at this particular slice of the American electorate.


Frenchman Jérémie Lenfant-Engelmann moved from Paris to San Francisco in 2008, just before the election that swept Barack Obama to victory.

As a recent immigrant, Lenfant-Engelmann did not yet have the right to vote. But he remembers the moment vividly. “My wife is American and voted for Obama,” the 28-year-old software engineer recalled. “She cried the night he won, because she felt it was such a milestone.”


Today, Lenfant-Engelmann is getting ready to cast his first-ever ballot in a US presidential election. He will vote for Obama. “He inherited a terrible situation, but did the best he could,” Lenfant-Engelmann said. “And he represents a vision of the United States I believe in.”

Halfway across the country, and on the other end of the political spectrum, US-born University of Michigan student Brad Fingeroot will also join the ranks of voting Americans on November 6. The 18-year-old was too young to participate in the 2008 election. Now he’s in Romney’s corner.

“Romney offers a sharp contrast with President Obama, and is willing to tackle tough issues,” Fingeroot said. “He won’t simply play rhetorical games and blame a past administration.”

In 2008, 69% of first-time voters, many of them young people and recently naturalised US citizens, chose Obama over Republican John McCain.


Four years later, despite doubts that turnout will match 2008 levels, the president is once again expected to win a comfortable majority of ballots cast by people, like Lenfant-Engelmann and Fingeroot, who are new to the US electoral process. Obama’s lopsided success with this slice of the electorate can be attributed to his continued popularity among voters aged 18-29 (polls show 60% supporting him) and the two most populous immigrant groups, Asians (62% backed him in 2008) and Latinos (surveys show 70% are behind him).

First-time voters in America hail from various places, range in age from high-schooler to senior citizen, and have different concerns and priorities. Connecting many of them, however, is the sense they are exercising a long-awaited right that comes laden with both symbolic and practical importance.

“I feel pride, and believe that voting is a big responsibility,” Lenfant-Engelmann said.

Fingeroot echoed that sentiment, calling his impending trip to the local polling station a “humbling and proud” experience.


‘In 2008, it would have been easier’ to choose

Agreement between the conservative Midwestern student and the left-leaning European immigrant ends there; Fingeroot considers Obama a “failed” president, while Lenfant-Engelmann thinks Romney and his party “have stopped caring about the country, and just try…to make themselves richer”.

That sort of antipathy toward Republicans is one of the main things motivating Harvard student Alli Welton to cast her first vote this November. The 19-year-old from Tonasket, a small town in Washington state, was thrilled by Obama’s candidacy in 2008 – “he was so inspiring!” she reminisced – but has since been “disillusioned with his lack of leadership” on matters like climate change.

Still, she insisted: “He is a much better choice than Romney.”

The Republican nominee’s selection of telegenic, staunchly conservative Paul Ryan as his running mate only solidified Welton’s support for Obama. “We can't have someone that vicious a heartbeat away from the presidency,” she said.

Though she is sure she will vote for Obama, Welton admitted she is not as enthusiastic as she would have been in 2008.


That dip in excitement among young Americans – who were riveted by the prospect of sending a relatively young, little-known, and charismatic African-American senator to the White House in 2008 – is keeping Democrats up at night as Election Day nears.

Alexandra Lewis, a 20-year-old Duke University student from Connecticut, is precisely the kind of voter the Obama campaign may be fretting about.

Not old enough to cast a ballot in 2008, Lewis nonetheless was deeply plugged in to the process. “I definitely would have voted for Obama, and it was frustrating not being able to,” she said. “But I went to his inauguration and still felt very much a part of the excitement.”

Now, caught up in her studies (a semester abroad in Paris and a demanding double major in French and Psychology) and nervous about the “unemployment and struggle” many of her recently graduated friends have faced, Lewis is not entirely sure which bubble she will fill out on her absentee ballot in the coming days.

“In 2008, it would have been easier to make a choice that felt firm and decisive,” she said. Nevertheless, she cautioned, “flip-flopping is a pet peeve of mine, and support for gay marriage and abortion rights is really important to people my age, and to the future of America”.

In other words: “I’m leaning toward Obama.”

Feeling ‘represented’ by Obama, ‘inspired’ by Romney


Of course, there are some new voters who are all but counting down the minutes until they can make their support for the president official. One of those is Sarah Bohannon, a 21-year-old student in the Los Angeles area, who said that as an African-American, the 2008 election “meant a great deal” to her.

“It was amazing to witness the excitement for Obama, and it would’ve been a great story to tell my children one day that I helped elect the first black president,” Bohannon confided.

But even though the historic moment has passed, Bohannon, who still supports Obama for “what he stands for and the message he sends”, is impatient to get to the polls. “I have been looking forward to being able to cast my first presidential ballot,” she reflected. “Especially being African-American, voting has an even bigger significance to me. I vote to honour those who fought for my right.”


Identification with Obama as a person of colour is widely seen as boosting the president’s popularity with certain immigrants, like those from Latin America, who favour Obama by wide margins.

Rene Leon, a 38-year-old restaurant chef in Sleepy Hollow, New York, emigrated from Ecuador in 1995 and will vote for Obama in his first US presidential election – partly because he trusts the incumbent to push for immigration reform, and partly because he sees a bit of his own story in the president’s. “I certainly feel represented by him,” he said. “[His success] shows that whenever anyone has a dream, it can be accomplished regardless of their roots.”

For Leon, voting this year is also a way to officially mark the beginning of his life as an American. “Events like this remind me of the long journey I had to go through to become a US citizen,” he offered. “I am going to stand on line to cast my vote, because this is the only way to be recognised and hopefully make a difference.”


Other immigrants share that same pride in voting for the first time in America, even if their political allegiances may lie elsewhere.

Mina Parkins, who emigrated from Serbia in 2004, is an impassioned Romney supporter. The director of a business and trade school in New York City, Parkins is “inspired” by the Republican candidate’s “business mind” and record of private-sector success.

“I’m financially very conservative, and I don’t believe in the redistribution of money,” Parkins said, explaining that in her opinion, Republicans are the party of “economic opportunity”. “I immigrated to see what I could do here, and it’s worked out for me. I didn’t come here to be a waitress.”

Voting for the first time in the US is a “great feeling,” Parkins says. “It makes me feel like a true American citizen.”

Though she will be disappointed if Romney loses, Parkins is focused on the bigger picture, and her place in it. “I really love this country,” she reflected. “I feel proud to be American no matter what.”


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