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New voter: a young woman’s political awakening

Hayley Colley of Tennessee is among the Americans who, on Nov. 4, will cast votes in a US presidential election for the first time.

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On the third day, when Hayley’s favorite band, Pearl Jam, was set to play, the mercury pushed into the 80s, rain fell, and the humidity made the air feel like soup. Hayley had no sooner stretched out in the shade of a tree than she noticed a line at a nearby booth. The booth was run by HeadCount, a nonpartisan group that registers would-be voters at rock concerts.
The sight of so many young people lining up to register stirred something in her, and she joined them.

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“I think it might have been the hippie instinct in me,” she recalls. “It was this huge festival, and I thought it was really unique that you could register to vote.

“I was proud of the people going up there and that the people of my generation believed we could make a change this time.”

Voting, she saw, wasn’t just something people’s grandparents did. In this least likely of places, she glimpsed that there was more to being young and on your own than keg parties and rock ’n’ roll.

HeadCount says it registered 1,145 voters at the festival.

Hayley soon found herself paying closer attention to news. She kept up with the candidates through the headlines on Yahoo, particularly the ones about Obama’s plan for withdrawing troops from Iraq.

Gas prices were siphoning a full quarter of her waitressing income. But she didn’t like Sen. John McCain’s plan for more offshore oil drilling. She remembered hearing about the 1969 spill in Santa Barbara, when oil spewed from a drilling-related rupture in the ocean floor and “affected a lot of animals.”

Whereas politics rarely came up before, now, says Nick, who is torn between Obama and McCain, “we butt heads.”

When local TV broadcast a story about the deadly July 27 shooting at a Knoxville church, the couple spent dinner arguing over whether stricter gun laws might have prevented it. (She said yes; he, no.)

On a range of issues, she decided, Obama was most likely to “put change in the White House.”
“Now that college is over, I want to vote, knowing it does count,” she says. “Hopefully we’ll get this country back on the right track.”

* * *

On Aug. 1, before an evening shift at the restaurant, Hayley voted for the first time. Tennessee was picking a Democratic challenger to Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, and Hayley drove to the county elections office to vote for Bob Tuke, a candidate her grandfather had recommended.

“Yea! Yea!” she said after the electronic voting machine flashed a message that her choice had been recorded. “Am I done?” she asked no one in particular, as if surprised at how little fuss was required.

Hayley has resumed her search for a job in her field. ESPN would be her dream, but anything that blended her interests in sports and media, she concedes, would be great.

She knows that Obama’s chances in Tennessee in November are slim. Tennesseans voted Republican in four of the six last presidential elections, and in the latest poll of state voters, released in late September, McCain led Obama 58 percent to 39 percent.

All the same, she says, she will enter the voting booth Nov. 4 undaunted.

“You never tell anyone, ‘Don’t play because there’s no way you can win,’ ” she says, with a sports metaphor. “If you don’t shoot, you can’t score, you know what I mean?”