Ky. Voices: First-time youth voters share observations on election

November 14, 2012 

College-educated women, check. Hispanics, check. African-Americans, check. Young voters, double-check.

How did President Barack Obama win so big? These four political targets in nine states supposedly held the key.

Now, live from Kentucky, you can hear some of what they were thinking, thanks to a survey of my Journalism 101 class at UK.

The 100-plus citizens hail from 14 states, including the swing states of Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida; represent 10 academic majors, with 73 percent in journalism; and range in age from 18 to 39, with 77 percent 18 or 19. Fifty-two percent are women.

Whether they were 18-year-old freshmen in their first semester in college or 21-year-old seniors, this was their first vote for president.

Sara Sims, 18, of Georgetown, Ky., reported suspicious activity involving first-time voters at the polling place: "I saw many dads, including my own, follow their kids into the voting booths with cameras. Is that legal?"

A couple of the students chose Green Party candidate Jill Stein. For Caleb Oakley, 21, of Charlotte, N.C., the big news was marriage equality in Maine and Maryland and marijuana legalization in Colorado. "Election Day was like Thanksgiving dinner," he said. "I was more excited about the sides than the main course."

The top issue for the class overall was the economy, including taxes and jobs. Second was a tie over concerns about abortion and gay rights. Third was health care.

Sarah Zometa, 22, an aspiring high school English teacher from Paintsville, was painfully aware that neither Obama nor Mitt Romney spent much time in Kentucky campaigning on the issues. "The Electoral College system," she said, "forces politicians to campaign like a mother who knows her favorite child and couldn't care less about the others."

How they voted depended on values, family, party affiliation and news coverage.

First came values: the candidates', their own and the match or mismatch between them. On family influences, even though a brother who "knows his stuff" or a smart father could influence their vote, nothing matched the power of mom to tilt the ballot box.

Party affiliation tied for third, with news coverage as a key factor in their decision making.

One student called Obama noble, kind and admirable, then added for party reasons, "I'm not voting for him."

Many were disappointed by the results. Sean Baute, 18, a journalism and Spanish major from Villa Hills, expects that "America is in for four more tears."

Here's a glimpse at how they responded to their first big election night.

Taylor Clements, 18, of Louisville, followed the back-and-forth at Romney's headquarters: "You couldn't cut the tension with one of Big Bird's feathers."

Anyssa Roberts, 18, of Clarksville, Tenn., found poetic justice: "Ohio swung left, Ohio swung right, but Barack Obama has four more years tonight."

Cameron Chaney, 21, a secondary English education major from Elizabethtown who aspires to be a Red Hot Chili Pepper someday, offered a musical note: "Barack Obama's Springsteen-accompanied campaign pays off to show who is the real Boss."

Thanks to all the young voters —regardless of race, color, creed or political affiliation — who voted on Election Day. You made your 55-year-old white male professor proud. Check.

Reach Buck Ryan at buck.ryan@uky.edu

Buck Ryan is director of the Citizen Kentucky Project of the University of Kentucky's Scripps Howard First Amendment Center.

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