Millions of Americans are voting for the first time this year, and it’s not just young people

At age 99, Barbara Duvall survived COVID-19, pneumonia and five days in the hospital.

Last week, the Indiana resident voted for the first time.

“I guess I didn’t have time before because of my kids, my husband and our family. I stayed with them,” said Duvall, who raised three children with her husband of 63 years. “I decided this time that I wanted the right man in there.”

With four days until Election Day, more than 80 million people have already voted – more than half of the total votes counted in the 2016 general election, according to Michael McDonald, a professor at the University of Florida who runs the U.S. Elections Project.

“The numbers are stunning,” McDonald said in an update on his website this week. “The pace of some states’ early voting is such that with almost certainty states will begin surpassing their total 2016 total vote this week.”

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Turnout among younger voters accounts for much of the surge this election cycle. But older voters are turning out, too. Of the nearly 5.5 million first-time voters who have cast their ballots, more than 2.1 million are voters over 40, according to data from TargetSmart, a Democratic political data firm.

It’s likely that 2020 will see an increase in first-time voters. At this time in 2016, about 3.8 million first-time voters had cast ballots, including 1.9 million people over 40.

Some of those voters – such as newly naturalized citizens – have never had the opportunity to vote before. But many, like Duvall, have been eligible to vote in previous presidential elections even though they did not cast a ballot.

This year, they’re seizing the chance.

Barbara Duvall, 99, sits in her room at Newburgh Health Care in Newburgh, Indiana in 2020.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, an economic recession and nationwide protest movement, voters say that stakes are high and that hot-button policy issues are driving them to the polls. Some are motivated by President Donald Trump’s impeachment, his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the conservative lean of Supreme Court. Others have fears about the future of law and order in the U.S. 

But many said it’s simply much easier to vote this year: States have expanded early and mail-in voting options, and voting is all people are talking about.

“I was never registered or nothing. Until this time. It makes you feel better,” said Duvall, who filled out an absentee ballot at her nursing home for Trump. “I know that he’s the right man – all he’s done for the people.”

Duvall said her husband always voted, but she stayed home with the children. Rick Duvall, 66, said his mother has followed Trump on Fox News every day since his election.

“We almost lost her, but she fought her way through it,” he said. “And she couldn’t wait to get her vote in for Trump.”

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Tennessean Jay Gilmore, 41, has sat out of elections for 20 years. For him, the importance of voting wasn’t emphasized growing up, and he believes politicians often only want his vote rather than caring about the issues that affect his family and day-to-day life.

“I have always felt like my vote doesn’t not matter. My voice does not count,” Gilmore said.

Jay Gilmore, 41, cast his vote in a presidential race for the first time ever in 2020. "I did feel some sense of, 'This is monumental,'" he said.

What changed in 2020 was seeing “so much hate coming from our Oval Office,” he said.

Gilmore voted early and went to a polling location at a church with his wife, who supported him and encouraged him to vote. He was on his way out and forgot to get his “I voted” sticker. His wife told him to run back in. He placed the stick on his mask.

“I did feel some sense of ‘This is monumental,'” he said. “This might shape the way my three children view voting.”

Fellow Tennessean James Butler, 52, an HVAC technician and carpenter, said he felt “on top of the world” after voting for the first time, for Biden. Like Gilmore, he proudly wore his sticker.

“I see now that my vote does matter. I want our country to be a good country again,” Butler said. “We’re in the worst shape since I’ve been a child. The world as we knew it – it may very well take decades before we can go back to the way we were. This country was founded on morals and values, and we’ve lost our way. So it’s time for me to stake my claim in what our forefathers fought for.”

James Butler waits in the early voting line to vote for the first time in 55 years at the Knoxville Expo Center polling station in Knoxville, Tenn., on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020.

Julie Hess is a bondswoman in Ithaca, Michigan, who has a child who is developmentally delayed. At age 59, she’s casting her first-ever vote because it was easier to vote by absentee ballot. 

She had to make the choice between throwing the “people of my profession under the bus” and “a bully.” Biden’s platform includes ending cash bail, but Trump in 2015 mocked a reporter with a disability

Sitting in front of her computer staring at her absentee ballot, she said she had an anxiety attack.

In previous years, she has made it to voting sites but never actually cast a vote. When she was 18, a fight broke out between a Democrat and a Republican, she said, and it turned her off to voting. In 2008, she was prepared to vote for Barack Obama, but someone directed a racial slur at her in line, causing her to leave. So when COVID-19 allowed for expanded voting by absentee ballot across the country, Hess knew she could cast her vote without having to face similar issues.

“I don’t think he’s handled this pandemic properly,” Hess said of Trump. Family members have been hospitalized with COVID-19, she said, and she has approved of the response by her governor, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, to the virus.

Ultimately, she chose Biden.

Julie Hess, a bondswoman in Ithaca, Michigan, had the difficult choice of choosing between throwing the "people of my profession under the bus" and "a bully."

Dana Fisher, 39, and his wife drove more than 1,000 miles from South Carolina to Massachusetts to cast their votes for Trump at the polls this year. For Fisher, a software engineer and the former director of a nonprofit working with people experiencing homelessness, it was his first time voting in 20 years. His wife, a nurse who works with COVID-19 patients, voted for the first time. She declined to comment.

“I lean right, but I have a lot of social-justice-type beliefs. And so I didn’t vote for Trump in 2016. I didn’t vote for anyone,” Fisher said. “The things President Trump said he would do, he has done. And he’s certainly done a lot for minorities, which is important to me.”

Fisher, who is white, referenced pre-pandemic low unemployment for minorities, Trump’s funding for historically black colleges and universities and his executive order prioritizing job skills over a college degree in government hiring.

Fisher said he voted for the first time in 2000 but became disillusioned with politics, which took a backseat to his school and work life. Fisher also said he didn’t feel as if his vote in Massachusetts mattered because of the Electoral College, but his views on that later changed.

“This just seems like a really, really important time,” he said.

Some organizations are also breaking from tradition this year. The New England Journal of Medicine published an editorial earlier this month condemning Trump and his administration for their response to the pandemic and, for the first time in it’s 208-year history, called for current leadership to be voted out of office.

Weeks later, USA TODAY’s Editorial Board endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time since its founding in 1982. Four years ago, the board urged readers not to vote for Trump but stopped short of an outright endorsement of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee.

Other groups that hadn’t endorsed a presidential candidate backed Trump this year. In New York City, the president of the city’s largest police union said his group’s support of Trump was the first time he can recall in the organization’s history.

“That’s how important this is,” Patrick Lynch, president of the New York City Police Benevolent Association, said during an event in August at Trump’s New Jersey golf course.

Alan Baker, 64, and his brother Jeffrey Baker, 63, both voted for Biden in 2020. Alan hadn't voted since the 1984 election while Jeffrey never voted until the 2020 primaries.

Jeffrey Baker, 63, said he “can’t stand Trump.” He never voted until the primaries in 2020. In 2016, he said he was certain Hillary Clinton would win. “I thought they didn’t need my vote. What’s one vote? Boy was I wrong,” he said.

His brother, Alan Baker, 64, hadn’t voted since 1984. “I was young, dumb, I was more worried about having more fun than I was worried about the vote,” the elder Baker said.

Both men served in the Marines, and Jeffrey Baker said he felt apolitical for years with his military background. “I got in my head that voting wasn’t important.”

“What he’s done to disparage military families and the military in general, forget it,” Alan Baker said of Trump. Jeffrey Baker was critical of Trump’s relationship with foreign leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

Both men cast their ballots for Biden this year absentee, Alan from Florida and Jeffrey from Texas.

Celebrities are joining in, too. Former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal, 48, said he had never voted until recently completing an absentee ballot. He also participated in a virtual rally to support Democratic candidate Joe Biden.

“I don’t have any excuses, but I didn’t have time,” O’Neal had told USA TODAY. “There’s a lot of people speaking out and a lot of people that are fed up. That is good. … We’re making a lot of noise, and now we have to urge people to vote and get people in places that understand what we’re talking about so laws can be changed.”

Former Major League Baseball pitcher David Wells, 57, announced in a video posted to Twitter Wednesday that he voted for the first time this election, for Trump. “Four more years, baby. Four more years,” he said in the video.

Rapper Snoop Dogg, 49, and boxer Mike Tyson, 54, said they’re finally voting after years of believing that their felony records prevented them from casting a ballot. About 5.2 million people in the U.S. are of voting age but cannot vote because of a prior felony conviction, according to the Sentencing Project, a D.C.-based research and advocacy center.

Roger Speer, 59, of Lakewood, Washington, had his voting rights restored in 2017 after a felony conviction. For decades, politics didn’t really interest Speer. “When I got clean and then the whole Bush-Gore thing in Florida was when I started becoming more interested in what was going on, but I still didn’t vote.”

“Once Trump became president, then I couldn’t wait” to regain eligibility and vote, he said.

“The impeachment hearing was like the tipping point,” Speer said. While he said he felt good when filling in his absentee ballot, he still has concerns about the election given the concern many have raised about mail-in voting. Luckily, he said he could check online and see his ballot was received and accepted.

For Adriana Hoffman, 43, a yoga teacher and Southern California resident, it’ll be her first time voting – and her first opportunity to do so. Originally from Brazil, where voting is compulsory, Hoffman first came to the U.S. 10 years ago. She got married and received citizenship two years ago.

Hoffman is not registered with a political party and did not vote in the primary, but she said she plans to vote for Trump because she favors his tax and foreign policies.

“He’s not with the establishment,” Hoffman said. “I see him as a good businessman. He did major peace deals nobody’s talking about. He’s not perfect, you know, but I think he’s a better choice.”

Hoffman said she hasn’t voted yet because she’s looking forward to going to the polling station near her house on Election Day.

“My husband, he sent his ballot, but I like actually to go and vote there. It’s really close to my house,” Hoffman said. “In Brazil, by the law you have to vote. You don’t have the choice. But here you have the choice. I’m going to go there on Nov. 3 and vote.”

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