The 2020 presidential election has inspired record-breaking early voter turnout nationally, and Washington state voters are in step with that trend. As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, one week before Election Day, 52.6% of Washington voters had returned their ballots compared to 28.5% at the same time in 2016.
Some of these early voters are voting in their first U.S. election.
From a 78-year-old woman voting for the first time a half-century after leaving communist Hungary, to young people motivated by personal trauma or inspired by the social justice movements of the summer, to those impassioned by specific policies of the candidates, these five first-time voters share what’s at stake for them and for the country as they cast their ballots in a presidential election unlike any seen before.
Nelago Nuunyango, 38, Orting
“I am raising two Black boys,” Orting, Pierce County, resident Nelago Nuunyango said with emotion, as she described what it was like to drop her ballot in the ballot box with her sons by her side. “I live here. I just need[ed] to become a citizen so I can vote, so I can go from protesting to actually doing the most important thing.”
Namibia was Nuunyango’s home for 30 years. She says she doesn’t remember seeing women smiling or laughing while growing up under colonial rule, where her uncle fought and died for the country’s independence, where her grandmother could not vote until she was 53 years old and where her great-grandmother never got the chance to vote at all.
Nuunyango never thought she could bear to give up her Namibian citizenship to become a U.S. citizen after moving here in 2012. But after the 2016 presidential election, she felt compelled to vote. In 2018, she became a U.S. citizen and this year she voted for the first time ever.
“Education for all,” three words that form a popular rallying cry among the independence movement in Namibia, were probably the only words her grandmother knew in English, says Nuunyango. So when Nuunyango moved to the U.S., she took the opportunity to get an education.
But when she enrolled in a community college in Washington, she found that as a Black woman, she and other people of color in the U.S. faced many structural and systemic impediments, so she began to protest and organize.
“I very much understand that [justice] is not given to you on a silver platter,” she said. “People forget that people had to die for this semblance of justice that we enjoy in the United States of America.”
For years, Nuunyango felt protesting and organizing was enough, but now she feels that she should have become a citizen a long time ago so she could vote.
“I think voting is the most important thing you can do,” she said. “Voters, don’t underestimate the power of your vote. There are people who are out there fighting for your right to vote.”
Dean Powell, 20, Redmond
When Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, Dean Powell wasn’t yet eligible to vote, but he says he knew Trump would run for a second term, and he wanted to be ready. So when he turned 18, Powell immediately registered to vote.
Now 20, Powell is volunteering with the Loren Culp campaign and is eager to cast his ballot for both Trump and Culp, candidates whose policies align with his personal values, Powell says.
“The Christian community teaches strong values like a sense of family and a budget to prepare for life,” he said. “I’ve been raised in a conservative Christian lifestyle, and I feel like that lifestyle has drawn me to Donald Trump’s campaign and Loren Culp’s here in Washington.”
That includes Trump’s plan to build a wall to stop illegal immigration, his support for police and Culp’s proposal to jail or send to treatment centers houseless Seattleites found in possession of drugs. Powell says these policies make him feel safe.
While Powell says he understands that Trump is “a very controversial guy” and even thinks there’s some “merit and basis to why people don’t like him,” he ultimately believes his vote for Trump is what’s best for him and for the country.
“I truly see the Biden campaign and the Trump campaign as two polar opposites — one with less freedom and more government and one with more freedom and less government. And I’m personally not a fan of more government in my life,” Powell said. “I feel like it’s up to us, the people, to make the decisions and encourage our lawmakers to make laws and policies that benefit our lives.”
Kaitlyn Chin, 18, Renton
Kaitlyn Chin was “voting” long before she was 18.
When she was younger, her father, who was never very interested in politics, would let her look at the voters pamphlet and make selections for him.
Now that she’s 18 and officially voting for the first time, she feels strongly about civic engagement and often reminds her peers why it’s important to vote.
“You can’t let other people pick for you,” she tells them. “Your vote is your voice and if you don’t use it, you’re just letting other people decide what you want.”
For Chin, this year is not just about the presidential election; she is deeply invested in the campaign to approve Washington Referendum 90, which would require Washington public schools to provide comprehensive sexual health education for all students except those excused by their parents.
“Freshman year, I was sexually assaulted and I would say that’s mostly because sex ed didn’t teach me and my peers what to do in situations like that,” Chin said. “Referendum 90 could save [other people’s] kids from going through the experience that I went through.”
Amber Gama, 20, Tri-Cities
When Amber Gama’s parents moved to the U.S. from Mexico, they focused more on making a living than on local politics. Her mother worked two jobs and her father worked long hours, and when they did watch the news, it was usually news about Mexico.
When Gama, now a junior at the University of Washington, turned 18, registering to vote wasn’t at the top of her list because she was more focused on her studies. Over the past few years, however, she has been inspired by the growth of the movement for Black lives and is motivated to make change after seeing a rise in racism.
“A lot has changed and people have become more openly racist, and it’s because of who is running the country,” Gama said. “I see that a lot of today’s occurrences affect not only those around me, but people that I know and those who struggled to be where they are today, just like my parents did. I plan to use my privilege of voting to make a change.”
When Gama’s parents visited her at school on Oct. 24, she gave them her ballot to drop in the ballot box in her hometown of Tri-Cities. For Gama, it was particularly powerful because she is eager to get her parents more involved politically.
“My life wasn’t simple, my parents’ life wasn’t simple, so I try to put myself into [others’] perspectives and see how I can help them,” she said. “That influences my decision when it comes to voting or politically involving myself.”
Marta Boros Horvath, 78, Seattle
Marta Boros Horvath is 78 years old and has never voted in a political election. Not in the U.S. and not back in Hungary where she lived under communist rule for the first two decades of her life.
Last year, motivated by her son-in-law’s political involvement, Horvath decided it was time to change that and vote in the 2020 election. But first, 55 years after she moved to the U.S., she had to become a U.S. citizen.
Her three children and a friend helped her raise the $640 she needed for the citizenship application fee, and she began taking weekly citizenship classes.
“I lived through the dark days of communist Hungary,” she said. “I feel like the democratic way is in danger [in the U.S.] daily, which is important to someone who came from a communist country.”
This year, when her citizenship interview was postponed from April until Oct. 28 due to the pandemic, Horvath worried she might not be sworn in early enough to vote in the presidential election. So she wrote to her congresswoman, and U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s office arranged it so Horvath could be sworn in on the same day as her interview.
“I lived through World War II when I was little, and I have clear memories of the war, and then the 1956 revolution, and then an immigration to the United States, and then 23 years later a divorce, and now a pandemic. So these are major, major milestones in my life,” Horvath said before her interview. “And now the next major milestone will be when I’ll be sworn in as a citizen of the United States and will have a right to vote!”
On Wednesday, Horvath passed her interview, was sworn in as a naturalized U.S. citizen and immediately registered to vote. She will cast her first vote in a political election on Nov. 3.