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Young voters in Milwaukee share the biggest issues motivating them to vote

JUANA SUMMER, HOST:

We are two weeks out from the end of voting in this year's midterm elections, so we went to the battleground state of Wisconsin to get a sense of what election season looks like here. Outside an Indian health center, the group Wisconsin Native Vote unveiled a colorful mural as the Ho-Chunk Nation's Wisconsin Dells singers and dancers performed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #1: (Chanting in non-English language).

SUMMER: Mark Denning, a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, rallied the crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK DENNING: This is the largest Native population in the state of Wisconsin, and your vote matters.

(CHEERING)

DENNING: We - it does. Go ahead, yeah. Make some noise.

SUMMER: And at an event focused on Latino voters, there were bowls full of tortilla chips in trays full of churros. A small group gathered to show support for Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes. He's the Democrat hoping to flip one of Wisconsin's Senate seats.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #2: (Singing in non-English language).

SUMMER: Wisconsin Congresswoman Gwen Moore made the case for Barnes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GWEN MOORE: But what you need to say to people is, look; go out there and vote your values.

(CHEERING)

SUMMER: And on a busy street corner outside the Milwaukee Public Market, organizers in bright purple shirts were encouraging people to pledge to vote. Matthew Grover (ph) is with the youth voting group NextGen America.

MATTHEW GROVER: Will you take a moment and sign a pledge promising you'll show up?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I will do it (laughter).

GROVER: Yay. Thank you so much.

SUMMER: Young voters turned out in increasing numbers in the last two election cycles, but our most recent NPR/Marist national poll found that this year, young voters are among the least likely to vote this fall. So we wanted to ask some young people about the issues they see as most important.

KAI ROWLANDS: My name is Kai Rowlands. I'm 19. I'm an undergraduate student at Marquette University studying physics and Spanish. And I'm independent, but left leaning.

MELANIE MEDINA: I'm Melanie Medina (ph). I am 20 years old. I do consider myself left leaning as well. I live here with my roommate, my boyfriend, my cat. And I'm a dental receptionist.

KARA WALLA: My name is Kara Walla (ph). I'm 29 years old. I'm a software engineer. And I live with my husband and four cats in downtown Milwaukee. Oh, and I identify as left leaning.

SUMMER: We brought Kai, Melanie and Kara together at the studios of member station WUWM to talk about the issues that matter to them, starting with the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

WALLA: It was scary. I'm definitely, you know, at an age where I'm thinking about the possibility of being pregnant in the next few years. And it's like, you know, you don't know what you have until it's gone. Like, I didn't really appreciate Roe v. Wade until it came to this point where now I'm having to think about being in that position of, you know, having something go wrong in a pregnancy and then not being able to access health care until the point where, you know, my own health is threatened as well. And that's really scary.

ROWLANDS: Yeah. And for me, it - the whole decision was really discouraging. Because first, when the news leaked about, like, the possibility of it being overturned, there was national outrage. And there were polls held then, and there were still a majority that believed it shouldn't be overturned, and then the Supreme Court went and overturned it.

SUMMER: What about you, Melanie?

MEDINA: It's definitely scary to think that health care isn't going to be available until you're almost, you know, like, on the deathbed. It's definitely something that can't be decided upon by people who don't have, you know, uteruses.

SUMMER: Let's talk about some of those other issues then. I'd like to talk about one that I think affects everyone, no matter what age you are, and that's the economy right now.

MEDINA: Oh, definitely, definitely.

SUMMER: OK. What does that make you think of? You had an immediate reaction, Melanie.

MEDINA: The cost of living has gotten so bad. Honestly, like, I moved out from home right when I was 18. It was semi cheap. I don't know about you guys. I mean, you're a college student. But, like, just working and everything, I - groceries have gotten really bad. I know, like, even streaming services have, like, gotten really bad too. Like, it's gotten really costly so far.

WALLA: This is Kara (laughter). My husband and I just bought a house last year. And between mortgage payments and then, like, car payments, we're starting to think, like, is it even doable to have kids in this economy (laughter)? Like, we're, like, a two-income household. I don't know even how we would pay for daycare or all of the expenses of raising a kid right now. Yeah, I am concerned about that.

SUMMER: As we've talked about this big bucket of economic issues - like housing affordability, cost of living, food prices - are there any specific things that any of you would like to see your elected officials do to address those things that are making daily life feel really unaffordable right now?

WALLA: Well, I definitely am always in favor of continuing to build affordable housing in the Milwaukee area. In some ways, it also kind of - I feel a little powerless about it. Like, I'm not totally sure how much the elected officials can really do. I think that making sure that, you know, the super wealthy are paying their fair share and not - and, you know, closing tax loopholes, I think that would be huge, that would be really significant.

ROWLANDS: Yeah. And I feel like their money could make a huge difference in the country if they used it correctly. But I'm not confident that our government would use it correctly either, especially with kind of the political climate at the moment.

WALLA: This is Kara again. Something that's really frustrating to see is that, in Milwaukee, we're having some pretty basic services having to be cut back, like our parks are understaffed. And then we just got news that a lot of the libraries are having to cut staffing hours. And I think I even read that they're shutting down computer labs at some of those libraries because of how short the city is on budget this year, which just is crazy because those are really significant public resources for those communities.

SUMMER: I want to talk about climate change a little bit. Why is that such an important issue for you? And what do you feel like the White House and Congress could do to better address it?

WALLA: Oh, it's so huge. It feels like an existential threat in a lot of ways. It's just so massive. And, you know, I'm worried about both what I will see in my lifetime as well as, like, my children and grandchildren's lifetimes. I'm so worried about pollution. I'm worried about microplastics (laughter). Like, there seems - seems like there's so much to worry about right now.

You know, I want us to protect the Great Lakes, you know, as our massive reservoir of fresh water that we have here. I would love to see our elected officials move to, you know, protect our water systems, move towards biodegradable plastics. I would love to see legislation around that. I don't - maybe that's a pipe dream, but I would love to see us moving in that direction. And green and renewable energies, I think, is huge, too.

MEDINA: Yeah, I definitely agree. It's scary to think about the Earth not being able to sustain everyone who lives on there. It's definitely caused a little bit of anxiety for me. I'm not sure about you guys, but it's definitely a stressor, especially, like - I'm pretty sure it's a stressor for people who can't get to clean water and everything.

SUMMER: We've talked about a lot of issues, and I'd like to ask, how are you all feeling about the Senate race?

WALLA: Well, I would really like to see Barnes win. And it is frustrating to see how much money has been pouring into Johnson's side of the race. Like, the amount of ads that I've been getting is, you know, astronomical. And this is a really significant race, I think, for the Democrats. Barnes was leading earlier in the summer, and now I think he's fallen behind Johnson. Really frustrating to see that sort of change in the polls.

SUMMER: Do you think he can win?

WALLA: I think he can win. I've been reaching out to the high schoolers that I know. I'm like, tell your friends to register to vote, please (laughter).

MEDINA: I would really, really, really like if Mandela, you know, won. I do think that he can. I was at his meet and greet. And one thing that both him and Gwen Moore were talking about is voting for your values. And I definitely do think that if we told people, you know, like, think about your values and then you can just go ahead and correlate those to whosever values, you know, are closer to yours. And I do definitely think if we get people to register, I'm pretty sure he would be able to win.

SUMMER: We've got Congress. Democrats have control by an incredibly slim margin. As outsiders, what do you think the solution is to breaking through some of that logjam and the situation where it seems like there's oftentimes just little space for compromise?

MEDINA: I do think that we have to get more younger people in Congress and the House of Representatives. We do have a lot of older people in there. And their, you know, opinions, their views aren't really - they don't reflect on what we think now. It's not, you know, the 1900s anymore.

ROWLANDS: Yeah. I think making sure that the younger generations' views are being taken into consideration and need to be represented.

WALLA: Two things that I'd like to see. So one of them is I'd like to see improved access to voting for everyone. You know, I think that right now, the people that find it hardest to vote are young people and minority voters. And I think it would be really significant if we made voting easier. And it feels like the last few years we've been going backwards, you know, with, like, the Republicans have been talking a lot about, like, election credibility. But a lot of that, it just comes down to restricting access to voting for people who should legitimately be able to vote, which is super, super frustrating.

And then the second thing, I would love to see corporate dollars mattering less in elections. It's frustrating to see elections being able to be won by whoever can spend the most money on that campaign.

SUMMER: I know that we are just about two weeks away from the midterm elections, but before we know it, there is going to be another presidential election in 2024. So I'd like to ask each of you for your opinion of President Joe Biden's term in office so far.

WALLA: This is Kara. I'll go ahead. I think I've been maybe more pleased than I thought I would be so far with his term. I don't think he's necessarily, like, an inspiring, you know, president. But it's been very nice to have a president that isn't constantly embroiled with scandals every single day.

ROWLANDS: I completely agree. But also, it is concerning with the age of who we're electing as presidents. My grandparents are similar ages to him, and there's no way I'd want one of my grandparents running the country.

(LAUGHTER)

ROWLANDS: And that's no offense to them, but there's so much unpredictability at that age. And I don't think that, like, level of uncertainty is necessarily something we should look for in a leader.

SUMMER: Do you all think that President Biden should run for a second term?

MEDINA: He's getting old.

ROWLANDS: Yeah.

MEDINA: Do you want Grandpa Joe in there?

(LAUGHTER)

WALLA: Yeah, it - that is - that has been frustrating to see. And it hasn't been historically like this. So I'm a millennial. And I think that Kai and Melanie, you two are probably Gen Z, right?

MEDINA: I think so, right?

WALLA: Yeah.

MEDINA: I'm 20 (laughter).

WALLA: Well, I would love to see some younger people in politics. And at this point, it's like by younger, you could be a younger person in politics in your 60s (laughter).

ROWLANDS: Yeah.

MEDINA: Yep.

WALLA: That's the place that we're at (laughter).

SUMMER: We just heard from Kara Walla. Melanie Medina and Kai Rowlands, all voters under the age of 30 here in Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Zamora
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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