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These Gen Zers are voting for the first time — and hope to decide the fate of their swing states

Three people of color in Generation Z share why they're encouraging people of similar ages and backgrounds to vote in the 2020 election.
Some 15 million people have turned 18 since the last presidential election, and early research indicates that turnout among young voters could be higher than ever this year.
Some 15 million people have turned 18 since the last presidential election, and early research indicates that turnout among young voters could be higher than ever this year.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TMRW

First-time voters in Generation Z, those born after 1997, have a substantial say in this year's election, and many people of color within this group are especially committed to making sure their voices are heard. In fact, their votes could be pivotal in swing states, according to the Tufts Youth Electoral Significance Index.

That's why these three young people in particular are focused on helping others of similar ages and backgrounds hit the polls by Nov. 3.

Jacob Martinez, 19, of Arizona used to be chairman of National Teen Age Republicans, but he started to question this affiliation when Donald Trump took office due to the party's stances on immigration and gun violence, he told NBC News. Now Martinez plans to vote for Joe Biden and works with the progressive group NextGen, which encourages young people to vote.

"Working in a swing state is probably one of the most intense things you can go through, really (seeing) young people and Gen Z in specific rising up to the occasion," Martinez said. "We are making it our top priority to not only reach out to young voters across the state, (but) specifically people of color, to make sure that voices that have otherwise really been not heard and ignored in the past in elections and by legislators. We're reaching out to them, and they know they do have a voice."

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Mya Colon, 20, in Wisconsin has a similar attitude about getting young people to vote, even though her ideology as a Trump voter differs from most people her age. While research shows Gen Z tend to see both Biden and Trump more negatively than positively, they tend to prefer Biden, according to an NBC News and Quibi Poll. Colon's father has been a police officer for 25 years, so she appreciates his support for law enforcement, she said.

"I feel like even though we're minorities, our voices are very strong," she told NBC News. "I've been making phone calls, contacting people about who they're planning on voting for and making sure that they have the absentee ballot if they need."

The youngest of this group of activists, Makiah Shipp, 18, in Michigan, worked with Rep. Rashida Tlaib over the summer and used TikTok to teach young people how to vote during the primaries.

"I was extremely excited about that because I knew that, especially in the city of Detroit, not everybody has parents that were ... active voters and that knew what that process was like, and if they couldn't teach their students or kids, who would?"

Racial inequality in America will likely be an important issue for young people this election, as 66% of Gen Z believe Black people are treated less fairly than white people, according to Pew Research Center — 4% more than millennials, born between 1981 and 1996, and 13% above Generation X, born between the mid-1960s and early '80s. What's more, more than half the people who attended Black Lives Matter protests over the summer were under 30.

Still, it's unclear whether race and other hot-button topics will be enough to drive people to the polls this year. Less than half (46.1%) of eligible voters turned out in the 2016 presidential election, and that number dropped to 36% in the 2018 midterms.

Shipp explained that while she's voting for Biden, she believes in more diversity in U.S. politics.

"It's definitely been the lesser of two evils," Shipp said. "I feel like Biden does have good policy in some areas, but also I don't necessarily feel like he represents me as a Black woman in America. ... When you have consistent, older white men running for president, it kind of drains you and makes you not even passionate about elections in general."

Colon wants other Gen Zers of color to know they don't need to fit the typical, political mold for young people.

"I feel like being a BIPOC voter, there's a certain sort of alignment that you should have, certain values you that should have, but at the same time, I'm an American, and so the values that Trump shows — being pro-Constitution, wanting to continue the legacy that our forefathers have created for us — that's something ... that really resonates with my values."

One thing they all agree on, though, is advocating for more representation across the board.

"What I'm more optimistic (about) is giving the resources to not only one standard of people but for everyone," Shipp said. "Having more Black and brown representation in everything, whether that be policy, legislation or just on our TV screens and media. I hope that things can really come full circle and the things that we've been fighting for can actually start to be seen and not just something that we continue to speak about."

Produced by KC Wassman and Nirma Hasty.