When asked if he was going to allow the fear of contracting COVID-19 deter him from voting, Steward Stiles III, 29, of Ferguson emphatically answered, “No way!”
“Of course, I’ll do the social distancing, I’ll have my hand sanitizer, mask, and everything else needed to protect myself and others,” Stiles said. “But, yeah, I’m voting.”
Stiles, a music teacher at KIPP Victory Academy, fits the demographic of Americans (ages 18 to 29) who responded to a recent Harvard Youth poll indicating that 63% of them will “definitely be voting” next month. The findings indicate that youth turnout is on track to match or exceed the 2008 election, which was a watershed year in terms of young voters for Barack Obama. Results of the survey also mirror the “favorability” ratings of 12 years ago. In 2008, 59% of young voters favored Obama. In the Harvard poll, 60% said Joe Biden is their chosen candidate.
Stiles is among many young people who insisted COVID-19 will not stop them from voting. All are members or volunteers with Young Voices with Action, Inc., a nonprofit founded by Farrakhan Shegog, 29, to mentor, educate and support young people ages 14 and older.
Shegog, an aircraft inspector and quality-control expert who ran unsuccessfully in 2018 for state representative of House District 86, said he’s optimistic about his demographic’s turnout despite the chaos of the coronavirus.
“I’m energized,” Shegog said. “Every voter registration event, every public discussion on policy issues and at every debate, I’ve seen more and more young people involved. It’s because they realize that politics are everywhere and in everything. Scores of young people have registered and are determined to vote because not only is Trump on the ballot but so is healthcare, immigration and so many other important issues.”
Shegog speaks a statistical truth. More than 15 million Americans who have turned 18 are eligible to vote in this election. Analysts say that voter registration for people 18-to-24 is already higher in many states than it was in November 2016.
Andrea Cain, 22, fits the profile. The UMSL student and Normandy resident said the coronavirus hasn’t deterred her from voting. In fact, she said it has inspired her to vote and encouraged her peers to do the same.
“COVID affected many college students because campuses had to shut down,” Cain said. “When it came to sending relief money to college students, money from the CARES Act helped very few of us. This became a primary motivation for me choosing to vote this year. After this election, I would like to see more support geared towards college students.”
Colin Evans, 20, is a Chicago native majoring in criminal justice at Harris-Stowe State University. Evans said he’s working to become more politically active. He volunteers with Shegog’s group and serves as vice president of Black male initiatives with his fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc., Gamma Eta Chapter of St. Louis.
Evans was only eight years old when Obama was elected. He said the former president set a standard that’s yet to be matched by Trump. He wouldn’t say who he’s voting for, but did indicate it will not be the man who bungled the country’s response to the pandemic.
“This virus shouldn’t have made its way into our country the way it did,” Evans said. “It could have been prevented. I’m disappointed in the steps they made to get rid of the virus and get things back to normal.”
Jonetta Robinson, 27, a Ferguson resident and mother of an 8-year-old girl, said she’s voting because she simply doesn’t trust the government. She has been actively encouraging her family and friends to vote, get involved and change the face of politics.
“We need more Black faces in politics across the board,” Robinson said. “My goal is to get our people to understand the laws, what they’re trying to pass and how they’re operating in this new world. We have to get involved. People have to research and not just vote but understand why they’re voting.”
Stiles said he’s voting for the return of stability in the White house. “Donald Trump has reduced the honor of the presidency,” Stiles said. “We’ve become a laughingstock to other nations. I want stability in our state government.”
Economic stability is another concern for Stiles. “Our economy is capitalist-based,” he said. “The health of our people must be prioritized in order for us to buy things, purchase things. You can’t have a consumer-based economy with no consumers.”
Shegog said the combination of the coronavirus and police brutality has motivated young voters to make significant change with their votes.
“COVID-19 did not at all stop police oppression,” Shegog said. “George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and scores of other black men and women have been oppressed or killed during this pandemic. COVID just added more stress for our families and communities.”
The upside of the virus, Shegog said, is that it forced young voters to pay more attention and note how Black people have suffered most during the pandemic. This activated group, he said, now realize that their issues and concerns are still on society’s back burner.
His generation, born at the dawn of media technology, Shegog added, have mastered its use and have already inspired protests, uprisings and racial solidarity around the globe through social media. His “more radical, more exposed, more conscious” and more politically engaged generation, Shegog said, has not been deterred by the pandemic.
“COVID punched us in the gut,” Shegog said, “but it didn’t knock us down.”
Sylvester Brown Jr. is The St. Louis American’s inaugural Deaconess Fellow.