For first- and second-time voters, casting your ballot can feel intimidating. There are so many important issues to consider — how do you know which ones you should pay attention to, or which ones will affect your life most? In Elite Daily’s election series, I've Got Issues, we’re having conversations with young voters all across the country who hold different opinions on some of the biggest “dealbreaker” issues in politics. Here’s how they feel about the major topics impacting their vote in November, and what young voters like them should know before heading to the polls.
For the first installment, we asked two new voters to share their thoughts on abortion. Cissy M., 21, is a college student in Pennsylvania who was the president of her school’s Students for Life chapter in the 2019-2020 school year. She is a registered Independent, and first voted in 2018. Laila S., 19, is a college student in Washington, D.C. who is the outreach chair for her school’s on-campus pro-choice organization. She is a registered Democrat, and 2020 will mark her first time voting.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why is the topic of abortion important to you? Is it a make-or-break, dealbreaker issue for you this November?
Cissy: I consider abortion a political issue and a private moral issue, which I think a lot of pro-choice people don’t understand. It's weird to them to think that people on the pro-life side are trying to regulate morality, or that we're trying to say our moral principles are right. But if it's a matter of people's lives and how we define which lives should be protected and where a life begins, that's something that I think the government has a role in deciding. The government has a role in laying down laws that protect life.
Abortion is definitely one of my top voting issues — I consider it above other issues. It’s one of the few political issues I speak out on, and I follow the news regularly. But I'm not a single-issue voter, and I definitely don't think that just because a candidate says they’re pro-life it’s enough reason for me to support them. But it is important, which puts me in a weird place.
Laila: In our world and government structure, it’s very hard for women, especially women of color and low-income women, to have autonomy over their own bodies. Abortion is an important issue to me because it intersects with so many other issues. Reproductive justice and reproductive health care are one of the top three issues I care about.
It’s a dealbreaker for me, to a certain extent. As a Black woman, I can't separate my race and gender from who I am as a voter. So I feel the same way about abortion as a voting issue. It’s something I can't take myself away from; it's too important to me. If I can see someone has a record where they support pro-choice policies and we as voters can use our democratic process to put pressure on them to do more, then yes, I'm going to support them, even if they don’t have a perfect pro-choice record. But if somebody is blatantly pro-life — even if it's a net gain in other ways — as a voter, I can’t compromise on that issue.
Cissy: I don't think being a single-issue voter is a good mindset to have, per se. I know a lot of people who consider themselves pro-life or all the way for Trump, no matter what, because he says he's pro-life, but I disagree with the mainstream pro-life movement's excessive praise of Donald Trump. So it’s not a dealbreaker for me.
To clarify, I do think the government has a role in protecting life, but I also believe waiting for the right politician or the right judges to save you is not enough. There’s way too much uncertainty to leave this important issue to those officials. I think a lot of this debate comes down to culture and influencing people on a personal level, and not so much over the laws, even though I do think laws are important. I think personal conversations are more valuable to the cause than just getting out the vote.
How do you figure out which candidates you want to support?
Laila: I research every candidate I vote for. I usually look at voting records, if they’ve held office before. Another thing I definitely look for is the health care aspect, like abortion access, and whether they supported any types of bans or restrictions, and if so, which ones? If a ban is tied to a point in pregnancy, what’s the timeline? I always check their stance on the Hyde Amendment, which says that the government can't provide any federal funds for abortion care, and the global gag rule, which prohibits federal money from going to international organizations that want to perform, or even recommend, abortions abroad, even if those organizations provide other health care services. People in Congress can't vote directly on the Hyde Amendment, but they’ll vote on bills that include the Hyde Amendment. So I always look for that.
If it's a bigger election season, like the 2020 presidential election, I look for candidates’ stances on getting Roe v. Wade codified into law. I look at what type of judges they would appoint. That usually falls along party lines, which kind of sucks, but that's how that is. I also look to see if they want Roe v. Wade to be a part of individual states’ laws.
Cissy: This might make me a bit uninformed, but I don't spend a ton of time researching. I check if I'm interested in what a candidate has to say about abortion or other issues. I Side With is pretty good for that. I also get that the things candidates say about political issues, especially when they're running for office, are not necessarily how they’re going to act when they’re in office. So there's always some uncertainty there.
I also look at the scores that different organizations give them. Like, if a candidate has a 100% score from NARAL Pro-Choice America, that probably means they're not pro-life or they're not in favor of restrictions in any meaningful sense. That helps a little, when other groups do the homework for you.
Would you ever not vote if a candidate didn’t live up to your expectations on abortion?
Cissy: If I ever felt like no candidate lived up to my expectations on abortion — yeah, I might not vote. I understand the idea that if you don't vote, then you can't really complain about things that happen that you don't like in politics. But at the same time, I feel like, in every single election that I've followed, and especially the 2016 election, your choice comes down to the lesser of two evils. Like, who's going to do the least damage to the issues you care about, or to the country? And I'm questioning whether I want to buy into that choice, and that way of thinking.
I sometimes see pro-life people who say that if a Democrat wins the election, that somehow if you voted for them you're responsible for every single abortion that happens after that. I don’t know if I consider not voting a protest or whatever, or just figuratively throwing my hands up. But part of me just feels like not voting this year.
Laila: I don't see politics as just a task we sometimes have to do. To me, politics is life or death. So many people's lives and livelihood are in your hands. I don't feel like I have the privilege to say, ‘I'm not going to vote this time because I don’t like this issue.’ And I feel so strongly about that, which is a big deal for me to say. In the grand scheme of things, you're one vote, so maybe it's not that important, but I feel like I have a personal responsibility. I don't think I could sleep with myself at night, or continue to be an activist in the way that I am, if I chose not to vote.
Abortion in particular can be very divided along party lines. In fact, it’s written into the Republican and Democratic party platforms, with Republicans taking an anti-abortion stance and Democrats taking a pro-choice stance. Do you follow party lines when you think about casting your vote?
Cissy: Last time I voted, I was definitely more straight-ticket Democrat than Republican. I can’t remember if I did any cross-ticket voting at all. But I think Democrats are more hostile to people who say they’re against abortion, which I don’t like. To me, abortion is a moral issue and not something that’s used as a political football to get people to vote one way or the other.
Laila: Normally, I do look at party lines when thinking about my vote, because you can't take abortion access away from other issues. How a candidate acts on the economy, how they feel about racial justice, their stance on immigration — you can't separate those things out from a reproductive justice framework. So if a Republican is pro-choice, their views on economic policy, or international policy, can counteract that for me, because they're still creating systems and building infrastructure that are inherently anti-choice. I can't support that. I'm always doing my research on both sides, but party does have something to do with it.
Do you think you found any common ground in this conversation? What advice might you give on talking about politics with someone whose views you don’t necessarily agree with?
Laila: I think we’re obviously on different sides of the issue, but I think that's OK. I don’t necessarily feel like there's no common ground between us, but on this particular issue, there doesn't exist a possibility for common ground because I believe you can't look at a single issue in a vacuum, and we don't live in a vacuum.
I liked the way we had our conversation. Sometimes these discussions can turn into arguments, with people saying things that are unnecessary, and that didn’t happen. One piece of advice I have is, when you're talking about something you're passionate about, or that’s personal to you, especially when it has to do with politics, it’s OK to care about politics in a personal way. I feel like Democrats or liberals get this phrase “facts over feelings” thrown at them all the time, which is true to some extent, but it's OK to care and for that to sway you, because you are a person and this is going to affect your personal life.
Cissy: I don’t think there’s any real common ground, because obviously she's still very pro-choice and thinks that should be a human right, but I think life should be a human right. But we do have similarities in our political beliefs otherwise, which I think actually helps this discussion and helps us understand each other. That’s nice to see.
I would say, to have a conversation, listen to how the other person is feeling or if they have personal experiences that make them think a certain way. You have to understand their perspective, because they might not be in the right place to hear some awesome argument you saw in a meme that, like, totally owns the other side! So address the person first, and not necessarily what you think the other side believes, or what you think you're walking into.
Your voice matters. So does your vote. Make sure both are heard and counted in the 2020 election by registering to vote right now.