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CORVALLIS, Ore. — To walk across the Memorial Union quad at Oregon State University the day after the presidential election is to assure yourself that the youngest voters in America are paying close attention.
Nearly every conversation — between students walking with professors, friends kicking bright yellow leaves as they strolled to class, or among groups sipping coffee while pecking at laptops set on sunny little tables — centered on Donald Trump’s unexpected victory over his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
But while they may be tuned into the election results, studies show that young people have never been great at showing up to the polls in large numbers, and the students here are no exception. Two undergrads eating lunch on the steps of the student union said they didn’t vote because their ballots arrived at their parents’ homes and they had no way of getting them and filling them out. Engineering student Anice Teel, 18, said she didn’t cast a ballot either: “I don’t think my vote counts enough for it to matter because we have the Electoral College and not a popular vote.”
Turnout among voters under the age of 40 has stayed steady at 36 percent for the past three elections, according to exit polls. And while voters aged 18 to 24 broke for the Democrat in 2016, they did so less enthusiastically than they had done for Barack Obama in 2012 and 2008. Only 56 percent of the youngest voters pulled the lever for Clinton. Four years ago, Obama had the support of 60 percent of 18- to 24-year-old voters. The percentage of young voters who cast ballots for the Republican candidate stayed pretty constant in that same time period; 35 percent voted for Trump this year, while 36 percent voted for Mitt Romney in 2012.
For those who did vote, the results were by turns unsettling, reassuring and more than a little terrifying. We spoke to several students at Oregon State University and across the country about their experience participating in their first presidential election.
Oregon State University
“I was pretty upset at America in general,” said Juan Santiago, 21, the son of Mexican immigrants. “To elect someone like Donald Trump whose rhetoric is hate…it just hurts that so many people want us gone.”
Santiago, a fourth-year engineering student who voted for Hillary Clinton on Tuesday, was on his way to study for his midterm exams. He would not have been able to go to college, he said, were it not for the sacrifices of his family members, some of whom have spent years working as hired labor on Oregon farms. Now, he’s worried they might be deported. “I’m one phone call away from losing part of my family,” he said.
It’s also upsetting he said, to think that his president come January has been “calling people like me rapists and drug dealers. That message of hate is going to be spread for the next couple years and ruin the progress we’ve made,” Santiago said.
In the center of the quad, students were handing out scraps of paper sloppily inscribed: “Love Not Hate.” Political science major Tabitha Pitzer, 20, showed up here with a few close friends at 1:45 a.m. on election night, after Trump’s victory was assured.
“As it became clear Hillary wasn’t going to win, it became clear we had to do something,” she said. Not wanting to make it about winners and losers, Pitzer, who had voted for Clinton, and her friends decided to focus on making sure marginalized groups knew they were welcome on campus. The group grew organically over the course of the day, she said, until close to 50 people sat in the quad at lunchtime, chanting and holding signs about standing in solidarity with Muslims, people with disabilities, and immigrants, among others. Like Santiago, Pitzer and her friends were disturbed by the often-hateful rhetoric that characterized much of this year’s presidential campaign.
“It’s not to go against Donald Trump,” said Justyn Jacobs, 21, who also voted for Clinton. “It’s to go against hate; to fight hatred with love.”
Despite the non-partisan nature of the demonstration, Jacobs worried about how Trump’s potential Supreme Court appointments might affect her ability to make her own reproductive health decisions. And Pitzer is fearful of the effect a President Trump will have on diplomatic relationships with international allies.
On the far corner of the quad, another student group was holding an election-related gathering for the national student organization Turning Points, which is non-partisan and promotes free markets and limited government.
Speaking for himself and not the organization, Tanner Lloyd, 20, said he was pleased that Trump, his preferred candidate, had won. Still, Lloyd wished there had been a stronger Libertarian candidate on the ballot. (He chose not to vote for Gary Johnson, the only Libertarian presidential candidate on the ballot in Oregon.)
“I definitely have faith in Donald Trump,” Lloyd said, “more than I would have with Clinton.”
While Trump doesn’t represent all of his values, Lloyd feels the “stupid things” the president-elect has said about women and minorities don’t create any real threat to anyone who is in the country legally. And he likes that an outsider will be stepping into the White House.
“I think at the end of the day, it just goes to show you what true democracy is,” Lloyd said. “The media can tell you whatever they want but the people have the final say.”
University of Massachusetts-Amherst
“I definitely think this election will change the climate of campus,” said Maija Hall, 20. “UMass is a liberal university, or is at least striving to be one, but we have had incidents of hate crimes happening since I’ve been here.”
Hall, a busy senior majoring in sociology who is also the president of the Black Student Union at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, cast her first presidential ballot for Clinton. As a community organizer and with the benefit of perspective gained though her African-American studies minor, Hall is upset, but not surprised by the results of the election.
“I don’t think this is a new era but a repetition of history,” she said. “There is this façade in the northeast that we are liberal; [that] we don’t support racism, sexism or xenophobia. [But] he won Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire was very close, so yeah, I don’t think it’s a new era, it’s just an upholding of white supremacy.”
Hall said she wanted to work on Capitol Hill or at a D.C. think tank after graduation, “but today, I decided I should continue [community] organizing, because what this election really made very apparent is that we need a sustained social movement to really address systemic racism and sexism.”
Najia Humayun, 19, grew up in Dalton, Georgia, a state that hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since Bill Clinton in 1992. Humayan hadn’t been born yet. And though she voted for Hillary Clinton this week, the results of the election didn’t surprise her.
“I guess just living in the south you see that many people do have prejudices,” said Humayun, whose parents are from Pakistan. She added that most people, once they know her personally, treat her with “kindness and smiles.”
Today on campus, despite her natural shyness, she decided she would walk around Georgia Tech’s sprawling campus with her head up and a smile on her face. She said she felt “a responsibility” to represent the Muslim-American community in a positive way.
Humayun draws inspiration from her parents, who belong to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, a minority Muslim sect, and are subject to discrimination in Pakistan, and from the refugees she tutors in English. So she takes an optimistic view of the future, even though her candidate lost. Unlike in Pakistan with its long history of military coups, her parents remind her, in America, no matter the winner or loser, there is peace.
“Here we are blessed with a peaceful transfer of power,” Humayun said.
Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Megan McKillop, 21, reluctantly voted for Trump in her first presidential election. The senior physics major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania said she couldn’t get past the Clinton email scandal, although climate change was her biggest issue.
“We’re going to end up destroying the world if we don’t figure out something else,” she said.
But the economic struggles of her hometown, Sprankle Mills, Pennsylvania, about two hours northeast of Pittsburgh, had made her wary of supporting Clinton, despite the Democrat’s vows to push for new jobs in clean energy.
“Economies in small towns are terrible at this point. And they need a boost,” McKillop said. “He’s willing to put coal and gas back in, and that’s really important.”
McKillop thinks the shift to options like solar and wind needs to be gradual, and that politicians and clean energy supporters need to stop “talking down” to people in small towns like her own, where livelihoods depend on coal and gas.
Education policy also worries her. She knows some students graduate from her school with $40,000 or more in student debt. She doesn’t see much hope for change in a Trump administration. And though she considered voting for a third party up until the last week of the campaign, she ultimately decided that would be throwing away her vote in a county that “usually doesn’t count for much.”
This time, votes from places like Sprankle Mills ended up counting for a lot, but Trump’s win gave her little pleasure.
“It’s finally over,” she said. “At least I don’t have to deal with the campaigning and all the ads, but it’s really no better. Half of the world is mad, and half the world is gloating.”
John Jay College, City University of New York
Having lived in an immigrant community in Brooklyn since she was 12 years old, Jannatul Mayeda, 21, expected Clinton to be the next president — she didn’t know anyone who supported Trump. But, after going to bed on election night confident of a Clinton win, her sister woke her up again at 3 a.m.. Trump had won.
“I felt so bad,” said Mayeda, who is a junior English major at John Jay College, which is part of the City University of New York. “I was wondering, ‘How is Donald Trump going to make America great again if he gets rid of everything that makes it great?’”
Mayeda emigrated from Bangladesh with her family when she was in middle school, because her parents were determined to get their children the education that had been impossible for them in their home country. Mayeda arrived unable to speak a word of English, but graduated from Brooklyn’s Edward R. Murrow High School on time and was admitted to John Jay the next fall.
This was her first election, and she voted for Clinton.
“She believes in the things that I want, like education,” said Mayeda. Mayeda is not sure what her career will be, but she loves to write and is currently an assistant in a college English class.
“I am worried about what [Trump] said about Muslims because so many people believe what he says,” said Mayeda, who is Muslim and wears a head scarf. “I think people voted for him because he wants to get rid of immigrants and Muslims and undocumented people. It’s kind of scary.”
Still, after being up half the night watching the results come in, she got up early this morning and made it to her first class. She said she is even more determined to graduate now so she can make a better life for herself and her family in America.
“I just want peace in this country,” Mayeda said. “So many of us just want our education and peace.”
Reporting contributed by Jackie Mader.
This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Election 2016.
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