Do you remember the first time you voted? I do. It was the 2004 presidential election, I was 19 years old and I was terrified.
Inside the voting booth at my former elementary school, I worried I would accidentally cast a vote for the wrong candidate. Far worse was my fear that the lever would get stuck and I’d be trapped in the metal box forever — or at least until the polls closed. After talking to other women about their first time voting, I learned I wasn’t alone in feeling uneasy. Author and activist Blair Imani blames some of those fears on voter-suppression tactics that make it far too difficult to vote. “If you can find the love of your life by swiping right or left then you should be able to make important decisions about our country just as easy,” she says over the phone.
When it comes to voting, fear can be a deterrent, but also a motivator. The 2020 presidential election has been referred to as the “most important of our lifetime,” a cliche that’s been used for decades. This year, those calls to vote like your life depends on it may have a startling effect on the results.
A recent poll from the Harvard Institute of Politics found that voters under 30 are more motivated to cast their ballots in this election, with 63 percent of poll respondents reporting that they’ll “definitely be voting” in November, compared to 2016, when just 47 percent of the 18- to 29-year-olds polled said the same before the election. Millennials and older Gen Zers now make up 37 percent of eligible voters, roughly the same share of the electorate as the baby boomers and Silent Generation, who make up 38 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.
As Americans head to the polls — or drop off their absentee or mail-in ballots — we asked 15 women, including actresses, activists, artists, authors and academics, to share the stories behind the first time they voted. Some of their experiences are inspiring, others are infuriating, but hopefully, each one will make voting feel less anxiety-inducing and more empowering.
Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Comedian best known for “Broad City” and host of the webseries “Cheat Sheet for the Voting Booth”
New York, N.Y.
“The first time I voted was in the presidential election of 2008 for Barack Hussein Obama. Yas! The good ol’ days, when politicians weren’t game show hosts. I was 21 and had been too young to vote in the 2004 presidential election, and this was before I understood how important midterm elections were — and also local, city and special elections, runoffs or whateva! I remember how human Obama felt when I was voting for him, like I was voting for this really nice, smart dad. I really couldn’t understand, until I was actually filling in my ballot and submitting it into the machine, that my vote would be counted! It was truly thrilling.”
Special education paraprofessional
New York, N.Y.
“The first year I got to vote was 1980, which was such a tumultuous, horrible time. My grandparents met at the Democratic Club on the Lower East Side in the 1920s, so we’re a Democratic family, but that year, not so much. Everybody had put their faith in Jimmy Carter four years earlier, but by then it was just really bad with the Iran hostage situation and the oil crisis. I drank the Kool-Aid, too. I can’t believe I’m about to say this out loud, but yes, I voted for Ronald Reagan and it has haunted me all my life. I changed it around four years later. Unfortunately, [1984 Democratic presidential nominee] Walter [Mondale] and Gerry [Ferraro, the first female vice-presidential nominee representing a major party] lost, but I tried. I never, ever voted for a Republican again.”
Co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund
“I always wanted to vote and, in 1988, I got to vote for Jesse Jackson. To be able to vote for a Black man for president my first time voting was pretty outstanding. He was a Black man who came out of movement building who, even more so than Obama, spoke to Black people. He was a progressive candidate. He was a barrier breaker. I had never seen a Black man run for office. I had not seen someone who could rap as part of his platform. I think the same thing worked for me that works for young folks now: They’re looking for something different. They’re looking for somebody who is relatable and breaks out of the traditional political space. Jesse was that for me.”
Co-founder and executive director of Republican Women for Progress
“My first election was 2008. Not only was it a presidential election, but Ole Miss, where I went to college, hosted the first presidential debate that year. There was just a ton of energy on campus. I was in a sorority at the time. Every and every Tuesday we would have these themed parties and, obviously, the election night party was election themed. My date and I went as John McCain and Sarah Palin, so most of Election Day I was dressed up as her, which in retrospect is really bizarre, given my politics now. I had been in the George W. Bush White House that summer and was a John McCain supporter. McCain was someone you could really get excited about, but just seeing all the support for Obama in Mississippi — granted, it was a college campus so it’s not the rest of the state — was very cool. To see the energy among teenage White boys from the Delta who were so excited to have the first Black candidate coming to our campus really was exciting. It made you feel like you were part of a bigger picture. A part of history.”
Senior digital content editor
“I remember being particularly jazzed to vote in the 2004 presidential election simply because my parents always stressed the importance of voting from a very young age. I voted for John Kerry/John Edwards, but I had really wanted Howard Dean to win the Democratic nomination. When I went to cast my vote in the gymnasium of my former elementary school, I was also excited to vote down Michigan’s Prop 04-2, which would make same-sex marriages and civil unions unconstitutional in the state. I thought the proposal would fail. ‘Who could have a problem with gay people getting married?’ I wondered. Apparently, 59 percent of the state. So, yeah, the first election I voted in was incredibly disappointing, but you can’t let one election discourage you from exercising your right to vote. A lot of cool women fought for me to be able to vote. It would be insulting their work for me to just stay at home.”
Registered nurse, tenant activist and Democratic nominee for New York State Assembly
New York, N.Y.
“Girl, I’ll tell you the first time I voted was when I was 18. It was Obama, that was my first election. Barack Hussein Obama. The school that I went to was a predominantly White school and I, along with a majority of the other students who were people of color, came in through access programs. To be at school and to claim a space that wasn’t designed necessarily for you and then to have a president be so bold and so Black and be talking about change, it was so empowering. To be honest, because I was surrounded by a lot of Black thinkers, we knew that Obama wasn’t the most exciting candidate. He wasn’t no Malcolm X, honey. There was no hiding that, but the fact that he was still unapologetically Black gave us hope that he could pave the way. No matter what he did there was hope that something better was going to come. Like in the sea, there are many waves. He was the first one and I wanted to make sure I rode it.”
Journalist, author, advocate and host of the daily podcast “Get the News with Gretchen Carlson”
New York, N.Y.
“I graduated high school in my hometown of Anoka, Minnesota, at 17 years old. Shortly thereafter, I turned 18 and realized I was eligible to vote for the first time before I headed off to California to attend Stanford University. Since I was still a resident of Minnesota, I registered to vote absentee before I left for Palo Alto. It was 1984. At Stanford, I remember following the election very closely that year. It was the second time President Ronald Reagan was running, and since he was from California, the election was the buzz on campus. What made it even more intriguing for me was that I felt as if I was representing both sides: Reagan was from California where I now lived, and his opponent, former vice president Walter Mondale, was from Minnesota where I grew up. I never considered not voting. In fact, I’ve never missed voting in any presidential election since. Voting is a privilege! Later, in 1988, that first experience voting became even more personal for me when I had the opportunity to meet President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office just before he ended his second term. As Miss America that year, one of the perks (a big one!) was to meet the sitting president at the White House. For a small-town girl, that was pretty cool. To this day, I remember he asked me about how I liked California and Stanford. He quipped, ‘You must really enjoy California in the wintertime!’ No matter how we vote — absentee, by mail or in person — casting a ballot is our voice. As someone who has spoken up in life to make change, I encourage you all to use your voice.”
“Wow. Had to dig deep on this one. The first year that I could vote was a midterm election year, which I only remember because my best friend’s mom was running for a local office. She was campaigning for county clerk — which I think had to do with marriage licenses? — and I worked the polls for her. I remember being surprised at seeing the cross-section of our community, all convening in one place, a 4-H Fairgrounds cafeteria at that. And yet, I remember feeling so mature, so empowered getting to step into that makeshift booth. I felt honored to be representing a local leader, a female nonetheless, and I recall making the profound connection that her job was dependent upon the collective voice of the community. She won, and ultimately, I got the opportunity to intern in her office. That summer made me aware of the importance of having a voice, and the effect that an 18-year-old girl can have, even somewhere in middle America.”
Author of “Making Our Way Home: The Great Migration and the Black American Dream” and host of the webseries “Smarter In Seconds”
“2012 was my first election. In 2008, when my grandma, who was born in 1929, found out that Obama was running for president, she was like, ‘You know what, I’ll strip naked and run up and down the street if this happens.’ She felt it was so impossible for a Black man to be president — she had left Arkansas because of lynching. So it was still exciting for me to vote for him four years later. At that time, I was living in Louisiana and my roommates were both Republican and extremely antiabortion, which was so weird to me; I had come from an extremely liberal background. They had grown up in small-town Louisiana and were on the other side of the political spectrum. I had to vote by absentee ballot, so I never really got the opportunity to go to the polls, but it was still really electrifying. Even though I just mailed something in, I felt part of a bigger future. I went to a watch party to see all the states turn blue, and by that time there was a song out with the lyrics, “My president is Black.” I was blasting it when they declared him the winner. I got home and my roommates were sitting on the couch crying. I made them ice cream shakes to commiserate.”
The Grammy-award-winning bilingual cellist, singer-songwriter and activist behind “Vari-Colored Songs,” a musical tribute to the poetry and cultural significance of Langston Hughes
New Orleans, La.
“The first time I voted was also the first time that I was eligible to vote. It was 2004, a year after we had waged war in Iraq and three years post 9/11. I was living in Maplewood, N.J., and I voted for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. I remember the sudden feeling of panic that overcame me as I stepped into the voting booth; I was nervous that I would mistakenly vote for George W. Bush, as I realized I hadn’t completely done my homework and learned what to expect. Thankfully, the process was relatively straightforward and I did not mistakenly vote for Bush; instead, I found that there were many other candidates, aside from the presidential candidates on the ballot, many of whom I had never heard of. I let this be a cautionary tale to not let the presidential race — despite its enormous influence — overshadow our need to know and understand the roles and positions of our local representatives. On voting day, there’s always more on the line than who will become president.”
Actress best known for role in “Grace and Frankie,” co-founder of the Jane Club and co-author of “Represent: The Woman’s Guide to Running for Office and Changing the World”
Los Angeles, Calif.
“The first time I voted was in the 2000 Bush-Gore election. I was so excited to vote because I had turned 18 the year before. I was also so miserable and lonely my freshman year of college. My parents literally left me at my New York University dorm and a giant sty formed on my left eye. It was so big I couldn’t keep the eye open. I was clearly having a physical, traumatic reaction. That was late August, so come November, at election time, I still had zero friends and I still had my sty. My polling place was right near my dorm. By that time, I had sort of made a commitment to myself like, ‘June, if anybody talks to you, you have to respond. You have to engage people.’ I was on line to vote and I’d gotten there kind of early in the day, so I was there with all of the elderly people. This man who was in front of me said, ‘Are you a model?’ And I said, ‘No, but thank you.’ He said, ‘I’m actually an artist and I’ve worked with all these models in New York and you’re just so beautiful and tall, I thought you were a model.’ By the time I got to go into my little booth to vote, I'd told him that I lived at the NYU dorm and he had given me his card. He said, ‘Please call me, I love working with other artists.’ I’m like, ‘Absolutely.’
So then I vote, the nightmare of that election happens and I call this elderly man who had offered to paint me and he’s like, ‘Great! And you do know these are nudes, right?’ I was like, ‘What?!’ I had the wherewithal to say no, but because we had the same polling location, I literally spent four years of my life avoiding this man. That all happened the first time I voted. Voting can be a lovely community experience, but sometimes you are waiting on that line and you start talking to people you should not be talking to.”
Podcast producer and investigative journalist
New York, N.Y.
“My first time voting was technically in the fifth grade, when my elementary school hosted a mock presidential election for the students, so we could learn more about Al Gore and George W. Bush. My beliefs were so different from my peers’. I remember telling my mom I was going to vote for Gore because of his views on climate change (I had already warned my mom that I was probably going to jail for chaining myself to a tree, so to make sure she could post my bail). My classroom, on the other hand, overwhelmingly ‘voted’ for Bush. Fast forward to 2008, I was a college freshman who was still railing about deforestation, even though I used more disposable coffee cups than anyone I knew. I registered to vote on campus and had lengthy discussions with my mom about how we could both vote for the first time in this presidential election (she had never voted before). My mom did vote in that election, and let’s just say we voted for different candidates — and have been splitting the vote ever since.”
President of Young Conservatives for Carbon Dividends
“I’m an Alaska resident, but my first time voting, in 2016 after turning 18, I was away at college in Massachusetts and voted absentee. I had such a hard time finding a stamp. Alaska is one of the states where you need postage to send it back. There wasn’t a post office near me, so I ended up going to a Staples for stamps. Then I was like, ‘Where does this go now?’ I pulled up the United States Postal Service box finder on my phone and ended up finding a mailbox on a side of campus I had never been before. It was really important for me to have a voice in that election, especially being from a smaller state like Alaska. We get discounted a lot on the national stage. Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, it’s only three electoral votes.’ But I genuinely feel like my vote matters in Alaska. I get a big say in those three.”
Retired teacher and school supervisor
New York, N.Y.
“You probably know about the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed voter suppression strategies like literacy tests. Well, a lot of people don’t realize that New York had a policy that if you went to high school or college in New York state and got a diploma or a degree then you did not have to take a literacy test. But anyone else who came from out of state had to take the test. I registered to vote first in 1960, Kennedy and Nixon were the two candidates and, like many other young people at the time, I was very excited about who would later become President Kennedy. I was living in Brooklyn, on Eastern Parkway, and I went across the street to the Brooklyn Museum because that’s where you would go in that neighborhood to register to vote. I had my diploma from the University of Michigan with me, but they said, ‘No, that’s not good enough, you have to take a literacy test.’ So I took a literacy test, which was about five questions. It wasn’t very difficult. It was something like, ‘Who was the first president of the United States?’ I think the citizenship test is harder. I passed it and was able to vote.”
Activist and editor of “Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century”
San Francisco, Calif.
“Travel back in time with me to 1992. Getting out the youth vote was a thing, at least it seemed that way based on reporting from MTV news. I was a first-year student at Earlham College, a small liberal arts college in Richmond, Indiana, and so excited to vote as an 18-year-old. I voted in person on campus and everything went smoothly, no long lines or claims of voter fraud like right now. Afterward, I placed my ‘I Voted’ sticker on my student ID and it was a real moment of civic pride. It felt very meaningful to vote for Bill Clinton at the time. The collective experience had a real energetic vibe and it felt like young people were making a difference. Looking back, that seems a bit naive as my views on voting have become more nuanced. As someone who has voted by mail for many years since, I’ll always have this fond memory of a shared activity with people in my generation.”