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Gen Z's first-time voters celebrate Biden's election but vow to hold him accountable

"Celebrate today, get back to work tomorrow," said Riley Reed, 20, of Chicago.
Image: Election celebration
People celebrate outside Philadelphia City Hall after Joe Biden was declared winner of the 2020 presidential election Saturday.Bryan R. Smith / AFP - Getty Images

Shea Baldino, 21, had gone on a walk to FaceTime with her best friend near her home in Gainesville, Florida, on Saturday morning when the news came in.

“She just stops mid-sentence, and I feel my phone vibrate. … She’s gasping, and I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh. I think I know what this means,’” Baldino said.

The Florida sunlight obscured the words on her phone, but finally Baldino was able to see the notification that said former Vice President Joe Biden had won the state of Pennsylvania, earning him enough electoral votes to become the president-elect of the United States.

“My best friend and I, we were both just not even talking to each other, just saying, 'Oh, my gosh,' like five times. … I had this feeling of such happiness. I was like, 'This is not real.' But it was an amazing feeling,” she said.

Baldino, who missed the cutoff to vote in the 2016 election by two months and cast her first ballot in a presidential election days before Nov. 3, is among a swath of members of Generation Z who celebrated the news Saturday that Biden had been elected the 46th president of the United States.

Of the 10 members of Gen Z, those born roughly from the mid-1990s to the early 2010s, who spoke to NBC News, some said the 2020 election was their first time casting a ballot, while others said this was their first time casting a ballot in a presidential election. Still others, who were too young to vote, had advocated for a candidate.

“It’s literally been the best day ever, and I feel like such a weight has been lifted off of our shoulder. When Donald Trump is in office, you are always in fear of what’s going to happen,” said Komal Nambiar, 16, of Georgia, who is a member of the grassroots TikTok for Biden group. “I feel so good.”

Nearly all said they had been excited to participate in the election in their respective capacities. Those who voted said they felt the election had given them a way to make their voices heard, adding they had been happy to participate in democracy regardless of the outcome.

Those who voted for Biden said their fight for progressive ideals cannot stop now that a Democrat has been elected and said they’ll push to hold Biden accountable when it comes to issues like racial injustice, climate change and immigration.

“I think people that voted for Biden are relieved and they're happy,” said Riley Reed, 20, of Chicago. “It’s like a similar sentiment of celebrate today, get back to work tomorrow. … We’re going to celebrate and be happy, but we almost can't be too happy because we know how the system works, and we know it’s designed against us, so we have to keep pushing back.”

On social media, some members of Gen Z posted videos to Twitter, TikTok and Instagram in support of President Donald Trump and expressed disappointment in the results. But some TikTok posts showed young Trump supporters wishing Biden’s presidency well.

“Good Luck Biden. Congratulations to all of his supporters. I wish nothing but good health and love for him. You are my president and I will respect you for however long you are in office for. Trump, I’ll miss you sir,” wrote TikTok user Chumbucket7877 in a video he filmed of himself folding a “Trump 2020” flag. “Stay United America.”

Members of Teens for Trump, a collaborative group similar to TikTok for Biden, declined to be interviewed for this story.

NBC News exit polling data of both early and Election Day votes showed that 13 percent of voters casting ballots for president in 2020 were doing so for the first time, and 1 in 10 new voters were between the ages of 18 and 24. In 2016, the percentage of voters casting a ballot for president for the first time was slightly lower at 10 percent.

A total of 68 percent of first-time voters cast ballots for the former vice president, according to the exit polling data, and 29 percent voted for Trump.

For Kristen Reddy, 19, of Rhode Island, the election results brought a flood of relief to her and family members enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, for people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

“It’s definitely comforting to know we don’t have to hold our breath and like sit and wait and be afraid that something is going to happen, and the ball is going to drop and then we’re all going to be separated,” Reddy said. “It’s a weight off all of our chests.”

Some of the young women interviewed said seeing Sen. Kamala Harris, of California, elevated to vice president-elect was a moment they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.

“The fact a POC woman is actually vice president — that is ridiculous,” said Toni Akande, 19, of Tennessee and a member of TikTok for Biden. “I never thought this would actually happen. Like of course there’s so many things that I want Kamala to do because she still has a lot of work to be done, [but] it’s just such a win for people at home, people who want to get into politics that look like me, people who want to get into politics that aren’t white men. It’s really good to see.”

Komal, a member of TikTok for Biden, said seeing Harris elected vice president was “the most liberating feeling ever.”

“It just feels like there’s representation, and it gives you hope,” she said. “It gave me hope, at least, that I can get there one day. Other women of color can get there one day. Being a woman of color in America is hard. We deal with racism, and it was really empowering to see we can get there.”