First-time Wisconsin voters on their hopes for the country's future

Recent statewide elections have been decided by the narrowest of margins. Younger Americans traditionally show up to the polls at lower rates than older generations, but one recent study suggests youth could play a decisive role in November.

PBS NewsHour

October 13, 2022

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PBS Newshour

By Judy Woodruff and Matt Loffman, PBS NewsHour

Amna Nawaz:
In another battleground state, Wisconsin, the Senate and governor's races are in the spotlight. And while younger Americans traditionally show up to the polls at lower rates than older generations, one recent study suggests young voters could play a decisive role in the state's elections this November. Judy Woodruff recently sat down with a group of high school and college students in Wisconsin who will be voting for the first time.

Judy Woodruff:
Thank you so much for joining us for this conversation. We really appreciate it.

You all, the reason we have you here is to talk about the fact that this is the first year you're going to be voting. And we want to talk about what that means to you.

So, Ryan, I'm going to start with you.

How big a deal is it to you that you're going to be voting for the first time here?

Ryan Bartley, first-time voter:
I mean, it's a pretty big deal for me.

I mean, I sort of see it as sort of like, when you're 16, you get your drivers license, when you're 18, you get to vote.

Katherine Pluta, first-time voter:
I actually registered to vote in my AP government class on my birthday, which was a fun experience. It's very easy to register online now.

I have been very politically engaged throughout high school. And I'm excited to get my foot in the door and actually have a voice in my government.

Judy Woodruff:
And, Ben, you're turning 18 just in time to vote in early November. How big a deal for you?

Ben Fraley, first-time voter:
I am very excited to vote.

Everyone in my family has always voted. And, although not a ton of people my age do vote, as it's one of the lower turnout groups, I'm very excited to vote, because I think having that voice in our elections is really important.

Judy Woodruff:
What is it that you care about a lot this year that is driving you especially to want to vote in 2022?

Katherine Pluta:
I do see the candidates, but I see pro-choice and pro-life. Personally, I am extremely pro-choice. I have always grown up with the belief that women should be able to have bodily autonomy in our government.

Amaya Boman, first-time voter:
I agree with the pro-choice movement. I think women have been stripped of their bodily autonomy specifically in the state.

And I think that it disproportionately affects women of color and women from more low income-communities. And the disproportionate effect that that has on their access to health care, their access to reproductive justice, their — just their right to be a mother or to choose not to be is frustrating to witness, as somebody who can be subjected to these laws. So that, for me, is very top of mind.

Soren Hoyer, first-time voter:
For me, it's our economy. I mean, I see on the decline — everything seems more expensive. Our gas is more expensive. It's such a up and down, you don't know what's going to happen with it.

For me, it's scary. And it's especially scary because, with everything on the rise, I have celiac disease. I already spend an arm and a leg for my food. And it's going to end up hurting people whenever they can't afford the food they need to feed their families.

Ryan Bartley:
As the son of two teachers, education is a very big issue for me.

I — personally, I think that everyone should have access to quality education, whether that be good schools, good public education, or access to college and less college debt.

Ben Fraley:
I think my biggest issue is voting, really in terms of the amount of people that can't vote under our current system. We have a lot of laws in Wisconsin, especially voter I.D. laws, that make it very hard for people to vote.

Another big thing on my mind is health care. Seeing Ron Johnson vote against the access to insulin was hugely disappointing to me, as a diabetic, seeing that it — while it does not directly affect me, there's many people in my situation where that bill would have hugely helped them. And people are going to die if — when people make decisions like that.

Judy Woodruff:
Let's talk about the person in office right now, President Biden.

How do you think he's doing?

Ben Fraley:
I think that, with any president, there will almost always be argument that they are not doing enough. And I think that I can say that about Biden right now.

The new decision to pardon thousands of people on a low-level federal marijuana charges is a great decision, I think, with his decision to help with student debt, though, he campaigned on bigger promises, I think that at least he fulfilled it somewhat. And I think that you can always ask for more. But I will say that I am relatively pleased with how he's doing so far.

Katherine Pluta:
I believe that he's not delivering on campaign promises that he made, such as protecting our right to choose. I would like to see him do a bit more to serve the general American people.

Judy Woodruff:
Is there one thing you would like to see him do that he's not doing?

Katherine Pluta:
I would like to see him codify Roe or make a more of a effort to. I know that he can't actually write a law to do so.

Judy Woodruff:
Right. He can't.

Katherine Pluta:
I would like to see him protect that right. I would like to see him ask the Senate, ask the House of Representatives to protect that right.

I want to see him fight tooth and nail for that right. But I haven't seen that so far.

Judy Woodruff:
Soren, what about you? What is your sense of how President Biden's doing?

Soren Hoyer:
I quite don't like President Biden, certainly wouldn't have been my first choice, nor would have Donald Trump been my first choice for this election — or for the previous election.

I think he's doing he's doing well enough for now, but I don't think he is doing enough.

Judy Woodruff:
What do you think he should be doing that he's not doing?

Soren Hoyer:
Well, for one, I think his Afghanistan pullout was a disaster. He left so many people. It was petrifying. He's not doing enough on the border.

We have hundreds of thousands of people getting in. And it's scary, knowing — so, you don't know who those people are. There's so much more that he could be doing that he's not. I mean, that — I don't know if he's made effort to try or not.

Judy Woodruff:
Amaya, what is your sense of how President Biden is doing?

Amaya Boman:
I think, if I had voted in the 2020 presidential election, I would have voted for Biden. I think he is not living up to the promises he made, but I don't know of any president that has. So I don't think that that's a fair standard to hold him at.

I think, as a firsthand recipient of what the student loan forgiveness was, my mom fought for the United States Army for four years, was a recipient of the G.I. Bill, got an associate's in nursing and still had loans. So, for her loans to be completely forgiven means an incredible amount.

Ryan Bartley:
While I would like for Biden to have done more, we live in such a polarized country right now that, despite his efforts to get things done, it's just so hard right now to get anything through, which is — like, obviously, I'd like marijuana to be legalized.

I'd like to live in a country where Roe is codified, where abortions are available. I'd love to live in a country where they — where I don't have to worry about student loan debt, but it's just hard to get through all of that right now in how the state of America is today.

Judy Woodruff:
A couple of you have mentioned or alluded to former President Trump.

Amaya, what's your take on the former president?

Amaya Boman:
I grew up in a very isolated, in a very white populated community, and I had never experienced the difference that I was Black until Trump was in presidency, that complete isolation that was brought on just by this political figure.

We had Hmong facilities in my community that were destroyed in the name of Trump. We had monuments that were destroyed in the name of Trump. We had people who were attacked in the name of Trump. And I think he brought out the worst in people, and he supported it and he didn't correct that behavior. And I believe no president would ever do that.

Judy Woodruff:

Katherine Pluta:
He, by all accounts, disgraced America in the January 6 insurrection. He — though the hearings are still going on, personally, I believe that he incited the insurrection and sent a mob of angry people to the Capitol, which is completely undemocratic.

And he also did not facilitate a peaceful transfer of power, which has been an American tradition for hundreds of years, which upset me greatly.

Soren Hoyer:
I do support Trump and have for quite a while.

I mean, during that time period, he had the nation in the best economic period we had for quite a long time. He kept us very well. Unfortunately, he did have his wrongdoings and has been a nasty person and has almost always been. But he also was the person, politically wise, he ran America as a business, in my opinion. He ran it as though that's what it was.

And so running it like a business, him being a businessman, allowed us to have financial gain, allowed us to prosper in those times, until COVID had hit, and which kind of tanked the entire world economy.

Judy Woodruff:
Would you like to see him serve in office again?

Soren Hoyer:
Most likely not.

Judy Woodruff:
Why not?

Soren Hoyer:
For the sole reason of just it comes down to the rioting. It comes down to him being a nasty person. And I think the first four years was good, but I don't think another four years would be great.

Ryan Bartley:
I will agree with Soren that the one thing — good thing I think Donald Trump ever did was with the economy.

I — that is the only good thing I will say about him. I believe, in this country, we shouldn't have sort of the massive division we have between Republican and Democrat, because working together is how we fix things. And Donald Trump basically drove a gigantic wedge between people.

He was such a polarizing figure that, from 2016 onwards, the country could never get anything done.

Judy Woodruff:
As you all know, the percentage of people who vote of your generation, the youngest generation, vote less frequently. A smaller percentage of you vote than the older folks do in the country.

But I really do want to understand how you see the politicians listening or not listening to your generation right now.


Amaya Boman:
I do think that there has been efforts. I know several candidates throughout the past two years have been to campuses, have literally been outreached. They sit and they listen.

But once they're elected into office, that stops, and that communication line is, you're e-mailing a staffer or you're e-mailing a secretary. And the odds that it actually gets to that person is so slim to none, that the reality that they're actually listening to the complaints of their own constituents is very — like, I have no faith that they are listening to those.

And so it's hard to say when I don't even know if they're hearing the issues that are happening in their communities.

Soren Hoyer:
I feel like, if we had more young voters and more people that voted as soon as 18 or as soon as they possibly could, I feel like we would have more politicians listening to our opinions, listening to what we want.

Katherine Pluta:
I think that what politicians need to understand is that, if you start politically engaging kids when they're 18 to 21, when they're just starting to get their foot in the door in politics, you're more likely to have an engaged audience or an engaged constituency as we grow up.

And I think that that's a fact that's overlooked most often.

Ben Fraley:
A lot of these politicians are just so much older than us.

The problems that I see are going to be very different, because, for our 80-year-old and 60-year-old Senate members, climate change means three or four degrees, and then they aren't going to be around much longer. But, for me, climate change means I might see the world crumble.

These politicians are so much older than us, so they have been in these offices for so long, that they don't need to listen to us. They have kind of got their elections secured, almost, that they just kind of keep coming back in and they don't have to engage anymore.

Judy Woodruff:
Well, this has been — there's so much more I'd love to ask you, but it's been such a wonderful conversation. I so appreciate every one of you sharing your thoughts.

Thank you very, very much.

Amna Nawaz:
And, tomorrow night, Judy will have a report on the Senate race in Wisconsin between incumbent Republican Ron Johnson and Democrat Mandela Barnes, one of the critical contests that will determine control of that legislative body.

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