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As Indiana elects its next US senator, a portrait of a split-ticket, first-time voter


Two Saturdays before Election Day, an 18-year-old IU freshman walked into a voting booth in Indianapolis.

Geneva Mazhandu, 18, was one of many IU freshmen to vote for the first time this year, which in her case, was no easy decision. Courtesy Photo

Geneva Mazhandu described the act of voting as euphoric, but at the same time, filling out the ballot was no easy decision. She looked forward to voting in the weeks and days leading up to Oct. 27. She went home for the weekend to run some errands with her father, but voting at the same time as him gave the weekend a new purpose. Mazhandu was also about to make a decision which could’ve put her at odds with some of her peers, and maybe even her parents.

Both technically and philosophically, voting was not as easy of a task for Mazhandu as the primary election in May. Then, the ballots were paper and you could see with 100-percent certainty the decisions you made registered — with a pencil. On the Saturday in question, a computer constructed the voting sheet and printed it once selections were made. But there were multiple opportunities for Mazhandu to take those selections back.

At the end of the process, it asked her to look them over again. Was she sure about her vote? She needed to make sure she checked the spot for Republican Wayne Harmon. He was running to unseat Rep. Andre Carson, and Mazhandu said she felt the 7th District Democrat inherited the seat.

But when it came time to double-check the box for senator, she had to think it over again.

“The fact that I was not 100 percent confident in that decision,” she said.  “I looked it over a second time.”

Her polling location had a small bell for first-time voters to ring. That, combined with the experience of voting, sealed the deal for Mazhandu.

* * *

Mazhandu voted for the first time this year. She’s not just opinionated; she eats and breathes civic duty. She hopes to be secretary of state one day.

She joined Model UN at the beginning of her first semester at IU and sits on the academic committee of her living-learning center in Briscoe Quad. She describes herself as identifying with conservatism as early as middle school.

“I’m very much against debt and overspending,” she said, describing her approach to fiscal matters.

She is religious, against big government, against most abortions and against the Affordable Care Act.

She is a member of IU’s chapter of Turning Point USA, a conservative organization which gained national attention in recent years for its activities on campuses and the rhetoric of the group’s leaders. She joined Turning Point because it seemed, to her, one of the more active conservative student organizations on campus.

Most of the neighbors in her Briscoe living-learning community are liberal, she said. In the lounge she shares with her suite mates, she tried to fit some of her own books into the collection of what she felt was liberal literature.

When she moved in this August, she saw Obama-Biden stickers on the wall of her dorm room. Posters and souvenirs of left-leaning political efforts continued to build up as the semester progressed, additions made by her roommate who initially hung the first stickers.

“We wanted to make the most out of it and not have roommate drama,” she said. “I don’t think she’s actively thinking, ‘How can I instigate something with my roommate?’”

A law and public policy major, Mazhandu crams for exams and participates in class debates about policy and international relations. She said some of her instructors twist her answers and that a fear of some conservative students is that liberal professors will grade them poorly because of their beliefs. On her first day of class this semester, an instructor asked for her opinion on interpreting the Constitution.

The question pertained to whether the Constitution was a living document or whether it should be interpreted as the Founders intended. She is in the latter school of philosophy, but when her response was repeated back to her, it felt twisted by the instructor.

“It feels like your professor hates you,” she said describing how she felt at the time.

Her professor's words went a bit far, she said, but it was also a function of it being her first day of class. She and the professor get along now. Mazhandu prefers to be liked by teachers.

When she takes notes in class, she’ll annotate in the margins. This is the argument your professor presents, she tells herself. It is not the only one. She’ll point out contradictions between reality and class lessons with sarcasm, which she said she has a habit for.

“Red flags everywhere,” she wrote next to her recent class notes about the European Union’s court power.

* * *

Even toward the end of elementary school, Mazhandu saw politics playing into her daily life. Her teachers were so focused on the 2008 election that even now, she said, she can remember feeling like the information they gave out was one-sided.

She looked to her teachers and close family members when she had questions, but through 2012 it felt like the answers she got were also one-sided.

Around the time she started at Herron High School, she said, she began to feel a certain degree of alienation.  A distinction existed between the academic and the artistic classmates, and she found herself in the first category. It was common for classmates to dye their hair in any color the drug store sold, she said, in part because it was one of the only forms of rebellion allowed in her uniform-mandating school.

“The fact that I had never gotten a crazy haircut, they were like, ‘You’re going to be fine in college,’” she said of her classmates. “‘You’re going to be normal.’”

To add onto the feeling of aloneness, her father began to catch on to her views diverging from his around the same time. Her mother realized around middle school, she said. Her parents are divorced, but are both Democrats at the moment.

They were never a lawn sign family, but that did not mean her parents were not politically active. Her father volunteered on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and her mother, she said, was a supporter of the presidential nominee and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“Can’t say anything bad about him in her presence,” Mazhandu said.

Her father is more moderate, she said. It’s probably why they can get along when it comes to politics. Their personalities are more similar.

David Mazhandu maintains he votes for individual candidates, not for partisan reasons, but recently he’s identified as a Democrat. For a while, she said, he was in denial over their differing views. Eventually, Geneva Mazhandu and her father came to the understanding that going forward, they would not be arguing when they discussed policy issues.

“I thought you were a Democrat, like me,” she recalled her father telling her in 2016.

At least, she said, her father would vote for her if she ran for office — even if her policies didn’t align with his views.

“She comes to me as truthfully as they come,” David Mazhandu said. “And that’s what I want in a representative.”

With her mother, common ground may exist, but it’s still a different story. They no longer talk about politics enough to find many of those agreements, Tressa Mazhandu said. 

Geneva Mazhandu said when conversations with her mother turn to politics, she changes the subject.

“She has said that she would not vote for me,” Geneva Mazhandu said. 

Her mother said this was likely a statement made in jest, but if her daughter was on the ballot she would need to vote based on her policy positions over their relationships.

She knows her daughter voted for the first time two Saturdays ago. She didn’t ask her who she voted for, nor did Geneva Mazhandu volunteer those details.

* * *

The ballot was cast. She compared it to an exam, hoping you made the right answer but not knowing until you get the results.

Geneva Mazhandu split her ballot for Joe Donnelly. Up and down the slip of paper were Republicans in any space that gave the option — except for one. She’d been thinking about the importance of a Republican majority in the Senate, but she did not want someone she felt would vote only with the president representing her for the next six years. Separation of powers was important to Mazhandu. That’s what made the decision so difficult.

The young woman and her father left the polling location and did not speak of it, apart from a quick celebration of the fact that she had voted in her first general election. Mazhandu needed to get the spike on a pair of high heels replaced and her father wanted to stop at a nearby international supermarket. Like with her mother, Mazhandu did not tell her father who she’d voted for. 

“The past few weeks we’ve been talking, not really politics, but values,” her father said. 

He said though this was news to him, he was not majorly surprised by his daughter’s decision.

“I haven’t really talked about the fact that I voted for him,” she said. “I haven’t talked much about voting, since I voted.”

The Tuesday after she voted, Mazhandu woke up and scanned the news, feeling more assured in the vote she cast than she did three days prior.

Axios on HBO had released an excerpt from its interview with President Trump, who said he’d been considering ending birthright citizenship, the right US-born children of immigrant parents can claim to being American. Her mother is originally from Colorado but Mazhandu’s father is from Zimbabwe, and as she put it, she is perfectly happy with her citizenship. 

The Saturday before, she checked — even double-checked — to make sure the selections on her ballot had a “Republican” next to them where it applied. She wanted Republicans representing her because of their shared values. 

But the birthright citizenship statement by the president made Mazhandu feel encouraged about her split ballot. She felt that Donnelly’s Republican challenger was not one to deviate from the president’s beliefs. She’d admitted that Donnelly’s voting record gave him an advantage in this case.

She hoped it was the right decision.

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