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Malavika Kannan first time voter election 2020
illustration Callum Abbott

How a teen political organiser from a COVID hotspot is using her first vote

Malavika Kannan is the founder of Homegirl Project, a youth-led organisation that trains girls of colour in political organising – here, she talks the pandemic’s influence on her politics, and voting in a linchpin state for a Democrat win

First Time Voters is an editorial series spotlighting a fervent new generation of voters and their intentions, hopes, and dreams for the future, and the work and rallying they do beyond the ballot

19-year-old Malavika Kannan is a Stanford undergrad, an advocate, and an author – and now, a first-time voter. “I'm actually super relieved, because I just got a text today that my mail-in ballot was received!” she shared as we began our conversation. 

Politics has long been on her mind: while in high school, Malavika founded the Homegirl Project, a youth-led organisation that trains girls of colour in political organising. So, perhaps it’s unsurprising that when asked if she ever doubted whether or not she’d vote this year, she says, “Absolutely no question for me.” 

Malavika cites the gun violence prevention movement, as well as the youth climate movement, as part of what brought her into her current consciousness. Malavika makes clear that these issues, and the movements that stem from them, don’t exist in siloes. 

“As an organiser,” she says, “I've become very aware of the intersecting issues with white supremacy and capitalism and patriarchy… those are like the three institutions that I’m most invested in dismantling.” Malavika knows that this election won’t bring about that change – “it’s a very lofty thing to achieve through one vote” – but doesn’t see how that dismantling can be possible without voting Trump out of office. 

“Paving the way towards the removal of those barriers is important to me and right now, especially during the pandemic, that's a top priority,” she says. Watching her community back home in Florida suffer from COVID-19, what she describes as “seeing the failure of institutions on such a large scale,” had a “radicalising” effect on her. 

Malavika is from Seminole County, Florida, which she describes as “the swingiest part of our swing state,” but she’s voting from Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she’s currently living and working. Turnout in Seminole County has been record-breakingly high this year already, and a local political commentator observed that the county may be the linchpin for a Democratic win this year. As of now, Biden has a close edge over Trump in Florida, a state Trump won in 2016.

“This is a turning point, the political formative years of my peers” – Malavika Kannan

Voters like Malavika may make the difference in Florida: the number of youth early voters so far in 2020 is already four times that number in 2016. “(Voting) is not at all like the answer to all the problems in society, and I think that regardless of the election, people and communities will have to take care of each other,” Malavika cautions. But, she says, “I still think that voting is an important way to mitigate harm for marginalised communities, and create the conditions in which we organise.” 

“As someone in Central Florida, which is one of the top COVID hotspots, I know so many people who have gotten COVID,” Malavika shares. “I'm very aware of how different experiences put people at higher risk for suffering from it.” She feels a strong sense of urgency about the election. “With this pandemic that’s being really terribly mismanaged, and killing so many Americans, and with the threat of climate change coming up, right now it’s important that we vote and give ourselves our best shot at containing these problems.”

Looking to the future, Malavika is hopeful that this moment is “a turning point, the political formative years of my peers.” While she’s fired up about the election, she’s keeping the work that will come after in the forefront of her mind. “There's righteously a lot of energy around voting, but I really hope people keep it up after the election as well.”