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First-Time Voter In Homestead Learns Hard Lessons About Democracy Ahead Of Election Day

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Jayme Gershen for The World
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The 2020 election cycle has stunted Jacob Cuenca's enthusiasm for the democratic process. "It's like West Coast against East Coast," he said.

This post has been updated.

At the beginning of the year, before the pandemic, Jacob Cuenca was an enthused Republican who had just registered to vote for the first time in his life. The 18-year-old Homestead resident followed the daily news closely and prided himself in reading conservative and liberal takes on news stories in order to get a balanced picture.

At the time, he was a reluctant supporter of President Trump. That was the case until the pandemic hit and Trump’s response to it was, in Cuenca's eyes, underwhelming.

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“He has fallen,” Cuenca of the president. “There's no way he's gonna be able to resurrect himself.”

Instead, Cuenca has become a reluctant supporter of Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president.

For someone who said it was “gonna be great” to participate in the democratic process for the first time, the 2020 election cycle has stunted that enthusiasm for Cuenca. Over the course of the election Cuenca has simply stopped paying so much attention to politics, and he’s gotten more cynical of politics in general.

“I kind of already made up my mind of who I think I'm going to vote for. And I don't think it's going to change,” Cuenca said in August.

The pandemic has upended every segment of Cuenca's life. His dad saw his work hours get cut, impacting the family's income, before getting them back. Cuenca was supposed to be attending freshman year of college at the University of Denver, where he got a scholarship.

But instead of a fall in Colorado, he’s had a Fall with his family in Homestead. He plans to start attending classes in January, but is just killing time until then.

Unable to find a job and not studying, Cuenca has been sleeping the days away and moping around. He’s taken to drawing and doing other arts and crafts projects with clay to pass the time.

“I made an ashtray, but I told my mom it was a box,” he laughed.

Cuenca's Mexican-American mom is a Democrat and his Cuban-American dad is a Republican. Both sides have rubbed off on him politically.

On the conservative side, Cuenca hopes to be rich one day, and when he gets rich he doesn’t want to be taxed any higher than anyone else. And on the liberal side, he sees the upside of more affordable education programs and taking bold steps to address climate change.

There’s also history. Democrats have traditionally helped pull the nation out of recessions, he said.

“I still consider myself a conservative. It's just like right now, with the Republican going against the Democrat, I’d rather vote for the Democrat this time,” he said. “But hopefully next time maybe Mitt Romney or somebody like [that] will run.”

Cuenca received his vote-by-mail ballot in the mail at the beginning of October, and finally his first election had arrived. He filled out the ballot and described it this way: “it’s like you’re taking a Scantron.”

Cuenca handed the ballot to his mom to put in the mail. “It was a little bit anticlimactic,” he said.

He voted to increase Florida’s minimum wage and to let everyone vote in Florida’s primary elections regardless of their party affiliation. He voted for Biden, but split his ticket to vote for Republican Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez in a congressional race for Florida’s 26th Congressional District.

Voting for a Democrat here and a Republican there is totally normal for Cuenca's approach to politics. He said that’s because he cares about the candidate and the policy, not some marker of gang affiliation.

“It’s like West Coast against East Coast,” he said, describing the current state of partisan politics in a comparison to the past East and West Coast rivalries in hip hop. “I hate that whole mentality.”

The partisan bickering is one of the biggest things that has made him start to tune out of politics during his first election cycle. To him, the fight itself has come to overshadow what the fight is actually about.

Like many other voters, Cuenca doesn’t fit squarely into one political party or narrative. He resents the two-party system, but doesn’t know how to break free of it.

The democratic process can feel sloppy, incremental, underwhelming and disappointing for many voters. A constant feeling of tension is baked into the system.

This realization has been a hard lesson that Cuenca has quickly learned for his first go-round.

“My dad the other day was just like talking about politics, and he was like, ‘Every four years it’s gonna be the most important election of your life. And that’s what it’s gonna be until you die,’” said Cuenca. “And he’s like, ‘Does it ever really matter? Maybe. Am I still gonna vote? Yeah. But does it ever really change? Probably not.’ I was like damn. Someone who’s lived that long and that’s what they say about voting in our country. It kind of sucks.”

This story is part of "Every 30 Seconds," a collaborative public media reporting project tracing the young Latino electorate leading up to the 2020 presidential election and beyond.