Eighteen-year-old Summer Elnowno has been waiting to vote for a long time. When her birthday arrived in May, she recalled, “Finally, I had the chance to voice my opinion somewhere. But the 2016 presidential race has been a dispiriting coming of age.
“This whole election, I’ve been thinking, when will the real candidates come in?” she said. The debates, her first sustained opportunity to hear from both major-party candidates, seemed instead to devolve into a barrage of personal attacks and half truths.
“It would be amazing to have a woman president, but I don’t want to just vote for her because she’s a woman. And Donald Trump? I don’t think I want to vote for Donald Trump.”
“Building a wall?” she asked, incredulous. “It kind of reminds me of Hitler.”
As the candidates and their surrogates make their presence felt in Florida in the last days of what pundits continually call an “unprecedented” campaign, 18-year-olds in the Sunshine State are getting a brusque, sometimes distasteful, introduction to electoral politics.
So much so, Elnowno said, that she hasn’t had the time or the energy to dig into the approximately 20 down-ballot races and amendments she’ll have to vote on in North Miami Beach.
“I’m gonna be honest: I’ll probably get there and just vote randomly….I don’t know any of these people. Senate? I’ll probably get there and just click one box,” she said.
Voting randomly, she reasoned, would be better than not voting at all—though she did reconsider once she thought about the possibility of randomly supporting a candidate she strongly disagrees with.
Election coverage has left her hungry for more concrete information about speakers. “You can’t don’t hear from the candidates what they really think, so you actually have to try and look it up,” she said.
“I’ll probably go to Google scholar, so I can scan out all the pathetic stuff that they write on Google,” she said, “so I can have a more defined search.”
At Largo High School, outside Tampa, 12th grader Mackenzie Howard said she’s relied mostly on conversations with her father during the presidential debates—supplemented by online commentary she tries not to take at face value. “I also see people’s points of view on the internet, which is not the safest place to get points of view, but”—Howard interrupted herself with a snicker—“that’s how it works.”
Both these first time voters agree on their top issue this election: student debt. “I think somebody really needs to come along and help us,” Elnowno said. Her understanding of where the candidates stand: “I heard Hillary is gonna try to take the debt off of us, but not completely, while Donald Trump—I think he’s talking about just leaving it there.”
“My family struggles financially,” explained Howard, who wants to study sociology at Florida Gulf Coast University. “If the candidate I don’t want to win makes huge changes that do not benefit me and my family, then, that’s a very big problem.”
Even a small sampling of students shows why Florida is often considered the swing-iest of swing states. Hunter Lane, a home-schooler who shared his top issues at a Donald Trump rally in Tampa, said he agreed with two priorities of the Trump campaign—drastic changes to the immigration system and nominating strong conservatives to the court: “Immigration and abortion are two of the main issues that I see that have America in trouble right now. I think those should be resolved, and I think Trump has the answers,” he said.
On the whole, though, Florida high schoolers—like young people nationwide—lean away from Donald Trump. A mock election staged by Newsela, a distributor of reading and current events materials in classrooms nationwide, had 16,000 student voters in Florida who participated. They backed Hillary Clinton with 59 percent to Trump’s 32 percent.
Makada Brown, a senior at Young Women’s Preparatory Academy in Little Havana, said her disagreements with Trump begin with his slogan. “I feel like he reminds me of a rich Anglo Saxon white man back in the 20s and 30s, you know?” she said “Like women? They don’t need this. They don’t need that. It’s OK. Men run it.”
“That’s how I feel, like if he becomes president, “that’s how he wants America to be—That’s his Make America Great Again.”
Brown moved to Miami with her mother from St. Kitts and Nevis when she was 3. Now, she’s hopes to study engineering at FSU, and she said she’s proud to call herself an immigrant. “When he speaks about it, I get angry,” she said. "In our eyes, he’s a walking contradiction: ‘Isn’t your wife an immigrant?’ ”
Whoever wins come Tuesday, Brown said she’s bracing for fallout that goes beyond politics.
“I think it will have a big effect on my friendships, because I can already see some of my friends’ ignorance prevail,” she said.
“And that already made some strong friendships deteriorate."
When she votes in the next election, she’ll be looking for that rare political animal: the candidate who can bring people together.