As Sianna Elmanouzi sat at the kitchen table in early October marking her pick for president on her mail-in ballot, her mind rewound to fifth grade, …
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As Sianna Elmanouzi sat at the kitchen table in early October marking her pick for president on her mail-in ballot, her mind rewound to fifth grade, when her teacher conducted a class poll on who students would vote for if they could.
And then she fast-forwarded. “Wow,” she thought. “I'm 18 years old and I'm voting. This is so cool.”
Jake Price, 20, walked into a voting booth on the University of Colorado campus on Halloween to make his choice. The feeling that followed took him a bit by surprise.
“To finally vote was very empowering,” he said. And regardless of who was voting for whom, “you could kind of feel this unity that we were all there expressing our American rights. That was pretty cool.”
The first time I voted, in 1980, I was 20, a junior in college and Ronald Reagan trounced Jimmy Carter in a historic landslide. Back then, voting booths had curtains to ensure privacy, and I remember the excitement, the goosebumpy-feeling that my vote gave me an influential seat at the country's table.
Since then, I've cast my ballot for president eight more times. Incredible, really, when you think about it, that we live in a country in which the four-year cycle of popular elections has continued uninterrupted and unchallenged since just after the 1788 ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
The privilege is profound.
And there's nothing quite like exercising it for the first time.
“You really feel the power that your vote has — your voice,“ said Chrissy Faessen of Rock the Vote, the national organization that spearheaded efforts to register voters between 18 and 29 years old.
Sianna, who is studying political science at CU, and Jake, a finance major, agree. So do Kyle Tosch, 19, an environmental and civil engineering student at Colorado State University, Chace Griffin, 20, a business finance major at CSU, and Grace Shea, 19, a history and secondary education major at CU.
“It's exciting to feel that you actually mattered,” Kyle said.
Kyle and his peers are part of the much-touted 46 million-strong youth vote that helped shaped this election's outcome — 19 percent of all votes came from the 18- to 29-year-old sector, 1 percent more than in 2008. They favored Obama by 60 percent to 36 percent and swing states such as Florida, Ohio and Virginia were won by voters under the age of 30, Rock the Vote numbers show.
Faessen wasn't surprised. The organization's 25-city national bus tour found energy and enthusiasm on college campuses, she said, and an understanding of what was at stake — students' potential livelihood.
A sense of urgency permeated the decision-making process.
Sianna and Grace became involved in campaigns — Sianna with Romney's, Grace with Obama's. They manned phone lines, sent out mailings, canvassed neighborhoods. Along with Chace, Kyle and Jake, they watched the debates and conducted their own independent research, searching for information free from bias.
“We wanted to make sure we were all educated and not just voting the way our parents voted,” Kyle said.
The issues of paying for college education, health care, the economy and jobs weighed heavily.
“It's scary to think if one candidate leads us down the wrong road how impactful that will be,” Jake said. “Not only for me, but I think about having children some day and what the economy is going to be then and what the overall cultural environment will be.”
Grace has watched her mother, who dealt with health care issues when she was diagnosed with breast cancer several years ago, also struggle financially. “Depending on which direction you go,” she said, “life could be really different for some of us.”
They all believe their votes, regardless of whom they supported, made a difference.
“We are the ones who are going to be dealing with the consequences,” Grace said. “We need to have our voices heard.”
“It's a domino effect,” Chace said. “My single vote may not matter, but if I don't vote, that may influence others to not vote and, in the grand scheme of things, a group not voting will definitely have an impact.”
On election night, Kyle and Chace sat in their living room, doing homework and switching between the Nuggets game and election returns on TV. Grace nervously watched CNN in her sorority house. Jake dejectedly listened to a scratchy car radio broadcast returning from a church meeting.
And, depending on where she was, Sianna followed results on TV, her laptop and her phone. Wearing a 2012 Romney T-shirt, she didn't realize Obama had won until she walked into her dorm lobby, crowded with cheering students.
“I felt defeated,” she said. “With so many fiscal issues at stake, I thought Romney was the better candidate.”
Grace and Kyle were elated.
“I had a great sense of pride that our voices … were heard and made a difference in this election,” Grace said.
Regardless of which candidate they supported, all five students say this first election experience inspired confidence in their nation and fueled a sense of patriotic pride and civic duty.
“Feeling as though you have a voice in the say of your country is a rather rare commodity in this world,” Jake said.
Research shows casting a ballot as a young voter makes one more likely to become a lifelong voter.
As Faessen said: “It's not just about voting every four years for the president of the United States. It's really about your continued participation and influence on shaping your country's democracy.”
These young voices make it clear our democracy is in excellent hands.
And that is unquestionably cool.
Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-566-4110.
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