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.

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff
At work: Hayley Colley, a recent college graduate, is waitressing at a restaurant in Franklin, Tenn., until she finds a job in her field. Young people are reportedly registering to vote in droves for the November election. She voted for the first time in August, to pick a Democrat to run for US Senate.
Mary Knox Merrill/Staff
Civic duty: Hayley Colley of Columbia, Tenn., registered to vote in June at a rock festival. ‘It might have been the hippie instinct in me,’ she says of her choice of venue.

When Hayley Aurora Colley turned 18, registering to vote was nowhere on her to-do list. The sassy California girl with a spray of freckles sought only freedom five years ago when she left the Santa Barbara apartment she shared with her mom and brother.

Her first year at a Tennessee college was a blur of frat parties, jock boyfriends, and nights of such revelry that she slept through morning classes. She and her friends griped sometimes about President Bush, “but I wasn’t proactive” about it.

Then, in December, the real world hit her. She graduated with decent grades but few job prospects. Gasoline prices were draining her pay as a waitress. And she was concerned about the effects of the Iraq war on young veterans she’d met.

For the first time, Hayley saw links between her own life and the decisions of elected officials in Washington. This summer, after months of procrastination, she filled out a voter-registration form.

This presidential election year has seen a groundswell in first-time registrations and voting by young people, a group with notoriously little interest in electoral politics. An estimated 17 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 voted in a presidential primary or caucus this year, up from 9 percent in 2000, according to CIRCLE, a College Park, Md., group that tracks youth civic participation. All told, more than 6.5 million Americans under 30 voted in the nomination contests.

Polls suggest that much of the credit belongs to Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee for president whose passionate calls for change in Washington have roused an army of young volunteers.

Hayley supports Senator Obama but is no activist. She can’t parse policy positions, owns no campaign bumper stickers, and doesn’t blog. She registered to vote after Tennessee’s primary, with an eye to the November election. She applied not at the county elections office, but while waiting for Pearl Jam to take the stage at a Woodstock-style rock festival not far from here.
Still, in many ways the 23-year-old is typical of her generation – a young woman who might well have skipped another election, were it another place or another year.

* * *

Hayley grew up poor in a glittery city of seaside homes. Talk in the family’s one-bedroom rental was not about politics, but money. Her mother moved to Santa Barbara to be closer to children from a former marriage and soon found herself working two jobs.

Hayley let herself into an empty apartment after school, and ironed the waitressing uniform her mother would put on after a day job as an office secretary. While friends at San Marcos High School drove BMWs and shopped at Juicy Couture, she and her mom went to discount stores and Goodwill. Several days a week, Hayley waitressed alongside her mother for money for clothes and movies.

Hayley didn’t want for friends. She was a shooting guard on the girls’ varsity basketball team, and, with her social confidence and good looks, she was popular. But she kept a lot inside.

“I always felt that separation going into my friends’ houses,” she says. “It seemed like no one else was in my shoes – no one. I think it definitely affected me politically. Growing up the way we did pushed me toward the liberal side of things.”

In her AP American history class, Hayley was riveted by two books: “What’s So Great About America,” Dinesh D’Souza’s post-9/11 tribute to the United States, and “The Betrayal of America,” Vincent Bugliosi’s indictment of the “stolen” 2000 presidential election.

Her senior year, classmates elected her commissioner of communications for student government. But if these were the first stirrings of a political consciousness, they would have to wait.

* * *

On her own for the first time, at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Hayley went to so many frat parties that her grades tumbled. Her father was so disappointed he stopped paying tuition. She transferred first to a community college and then Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. She logged long hours on the quiet upper floors of the school library to raise her grades and straighten out her life.

Political talk among college friends amounted to tossed-off put-downs. Of Mr. Bush, she recalls, “We’d say, ‘He’s an idiot, I can’t even believe he’s running my country.’ ” But it never went beyond that.

“It just wasn’t on my mind,” she says. “Locally, I didn’t want to vote. Nationally, I knew we were screwed for another four years.”

Hayley won college internships with a local news station and a public relations firm, and graduated in December with a degree in electronic media journalism. She believed what people said while she was growing up: Get a college degree, and good jobs will follow.

She sent out dozens of résumés. But with the economy in turmoil, a glut of applicants, and few media companies hiring, she got few replies.

Dispirited, she moved in this spring with her grandparents in this Nashville suburb and took a job waiting tables at an Italian restaurant. She works four days a week for $2.13 an hour, plus tips. She fills her tank in such small increments that her car – a loaner from her father’s girlfriend – ran out of gas recently in the middle of Nashville.

“I can’t stand having a degree and not being able to use it – it’s killing me,” she said, still in her black restaurant clothes two hours after returning from a day shift. “I got through college and I’ve come out to a world that has nothing to offer.”

* * *

Hayley’s grandfather, Jerry Colley, a criminal defense lawyer here, had worked on the campaigns of Democratic Tennessee senators and governors for nearly a half century. His wife, Linda Colley, a hairdresser, has chaired the Maury County Democratic Party since 2000. Their home in a rural subdivision is decorated with photos of the couple with Gov. Phil Bredeson, former US Rep. Harold Ford Jr., and President Bill Clinton.

CNN is often on, and politics is a favorite subject at dinner. When Hayley was home, the Colleys, who first supported John Edwards and then Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primaries, would try to interest Hayley in the presidential race. Mrs. Colley told Hayley she had a stack of voter-registration forms right there in the closet.

But their granddaughter, with her rebellious streak, put her grandparents off. And her boyfriend, Nick Haag, a long-sideburned guitarist in a local band, who had registered to vote when he was 18, didn’t intervene.

“To me, it’s a person’s choice,” says Mr. Haag, who is more conservative politically than his girlfriend. “She’d been in college having a good time, and it hadn’t been a big part of her life.”

Tennessee saw one of the nation’s sharpest spikes this year in turnout rates for young people, according to CIRCLE. Some 15 percent of Tennesseans under 30 voted in the presidential primary, a nearly fourfold increase over 2000, which saw a suspense-free primary easily won by favorite son Al Gore.

On the nights of almost every big primary, Hayley sat in front of the TV with her grandparents as the results rolled in. But she didn’t vote in Tennessee’s contest.

“We hounded her to register,” Mrs. Colley recalled. “But she’s very independent, so you have to go with Hayley at her speed.”

Still, one issue in the race sometimes got her to open up, particularly while Mrs. Colley pretended to be busy making dinner. “The economy would get her attention,” Mr. Colley recalls.

Though Hayley seldom discussed them with her grandparents, other issues were starting to gnaw at her as well. Iraq war veterans she had met – including a co-worker at the restaurant – seemed defeated by the experience, and she began to feel that Bush had started the war on the basis of “a lie.”

* * *

Bonnaroo is a rock festival that unfolds over four days each June on a farm in Manchester, Tenn., an 80-minute drive east of Columbia. When Hayley announced that she and Nick were going, her grandparents assumed the worst.

“I thought they’d be smoking marijuana and drinking beer,” Mr. Colley said.

Added Mrs. Colley: “We weren’t thinking voter registration – I’ll tell you that.”

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.

“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?”

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