Early Saturday morning, as my Twitter-absorbed mom scrolled through her feed, she grabbed my forearm, looked me in the eye and said, “They called it.”
I instantly knew what she meant. After nearly a week of suspense, the Associated Press had called Pennsylvania for Joe Biden. By noon, cars were honking and blasting music out of their windows, and strangers were laughing, talking and even dancing on the street.
My first-ever election was over.
The news came as a relief after a week of emotional tug-of-war which painfully prolonged the election anxiety I had felt for months. I wasn’t the only person my age who took a mental health blow because of the election—a Harvard Institute of Politics study in April showed 18- to 29-year-olds who think the U.S. is headed in the wrong direction are more likely to be anxious regardless of their political affiliation.
I was 14 during the last presidential election—politically aware enough to understand its gravity, but too young to participate. By watching the election play out in slow-motion the same year I cast my first vote, I gained a greater understanding of how each vote—even mine—counts.
But if my first election taught me anything, it’s that the work isn’t over.
In high school, I had a debate teacher who said, “Kids don’t vote because politicians don’t care; politicians don’t care because kids don’t vote.” It made me think that one of us, kids or politicians, had to break the cycle. And this year, we did just that: Tuft University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) predicts that youth voter turnout may rise up to 10 points above what it was in 2016.
But the cycle wasn’t broken. I still didn’t feel fully represented by the politicians on my ballot or the result of the election.
According to a CIRCLE analysis of the AP VoteCast, young voters were more likely to be driven to the polls by issues like racism and climate change. I was no exception. But I didn’t feel as though these values were heard on Election Day—especially in the California ballot measures results.
Prop. 16, which would have allowed California universities and workplaces to consider racial, ethnic and gender diversity when making hiring or admissions decisions, didn’t pass. It disappointed me to witness fellow Californians uphold a system that is blind to the impacts of racism.
Prop. 18, which would have allowed 17-year-olds who will turn 18 by the next election to vote in the primary, was also voted down. I’m 18 now, but was too young to vote on Super Tuesday. It discouraged me to see California stifle the youth voice and discourage our political participation.
Prop. 15, which would have raised taxes for big businesses to raise billions for public schools and local government, didn’t pass. It’s infuriating to see my state choose not to help our schools—and therefore the young people they serve.
In the presidential race, neither candidate opposed fracking. In my opinion, neither candidate proposed a plan to end police brutality, nor to adequately meet our country’s need for accessible healthcare. I settled for a candidate I thought would accomplish political goals most closely aligned with my own. But, as a young person, my vision for our country’s future, for my future and my peer’s future, was not on the ballot.
It’s hard for me to talk about politics right now, even with people I generally agree with. The political polarization has trickled down past the classic red-versus-blue. People are angry or don’t have the patience to talk through even small disagreements. Those who aren’t represented by either party may feel hopeless regardless of the election’s results.
As a young person, I know it’s important to move forward from our political divides. But it’s just as important to continue advocating for our values—even if we can’t vote for them. One day, politicians will care because kids will vote. But until then, we must have the courage to take our fight beyond the ballot box.
Lucy Barnum, 18, is from Berkeley and a writer for YR Media—a national network of diverse young journalists and artists from underrepresented communities who create content for this generation—which is headquartered in downtown Oakland.