Meet the first-time voters of Hicksville, Ohio

"Even though some of them have been indoctrinated at home, they are open-minded."

Hicksville's high school is housed in a state-of-the-art red-brick building, opened in 2009, on the east side of town. Students spill corridors filled with lockers in classic American high school style. On the day I visit, government teacher Dave Blue is taking two senior-year classes, most of whom will be eligible to vote for the first time tomorrow.

Among them, some are simply not interested. “I don't really pay attention to [politics],” says one 18-year-old student, Chad Klema, while another, Dean Conley simply says “I'm not voting.” When this gets an anguished response from the more politically active of his peers, he defends himself. “I just hate hearing about it. I don't think any president can fix this.”

Many are entirely disillusioned with the political process as a whole. “Neither candidate is great” is a common factor among many – though not all – students in both classes. “There are negative ads before every video on YouTube,” says 18-year-old Morgan Hahn. “It's not cool.”

Many of them, however, are more politically aware. Each lesson has a clearly dominant voice; obviously old rivals, they tell me they often spar with each other on political issues. Andrew Willis, the most powerful voice in the morning lesson, is a staunch and vocal Democrat. “I'm pro-choice, and gay marriage. I don't like that the rich get the tax cuts – Bush's tax cuts added to the deficit.” What does he think of the Republican challenger? “I think Romney is really, really untrustworthy. I think he changes his opinions to get elected.”

“He's a political rat!” he says with venom.

The afternoon class, by comparison, is all about Austin Laney – whose conservatism Willis tells me he likes to goad. “[Romney's] not just for one part of the country, he's for all of it,” Laney tells me. Even for the middle class? “Yeah.”

“Obama doesn't know what he's talking about,” he continues. “I don't like Obama. Romney's not that great – but he's better.”

Their teacher, Dave Blue, is one of those teachers that all his former pupils remember with a grin. I first meet him in the Brickhouse, Hicksville's local sports bar – I'm introduced by several former pupils. “You have to meet Dave,” they tell me. He makes quite an entrance, wearing a long leather trenchcoat and a battered stetson, and orders a whisky.

Blue has been helping his pupils negotiate the minefields of American politics for 28 years. I ask him if the students he sees generally lean one way or another. “I'd say [they're] more Republican than Democrat,” he tells me, “but Obama's got a good chance among these kids. They're young, they're willing to listen. Their minds are reasonably flexible. Even though some of them have been indoctrinated at home, they are open-minded. Some are probably going to rebel from mum and dad.”

When I ask the afternoon class if their political beliefs have been affected by their parents, there is a chorus of “yes” – except from Laney, who tells me scornfully that his parents are Democrats.

“I could go either way,” says another pupil, Charlie Guto. What would sway him? “I dunno.” He stops to think. “I'm against abortion. I don't think it's right.” Does that mean Romney's on his side on that one? “Yeah. But I feel like whoever wins, no one's going to fix it right away.”

Some of them have been under pressure from their classmates – but Shane Bostik is not giving in. “I'm on the border still,” he says, looking at Laney with a grin. “I've had Austin trying to persuade me to go for Romney... but I think I'm sticking with Obama. I think things are getting better each year.”

“They are starting to realise,” says Dave Blue proudly after the bell has gone and the students have joined the throng in the corridors heading to their next class, “that the real world is not that far away.”

He gestures expansively around his classroom. “And this is a part of it.”

A Democrat volunteer encourages people to turn out in Ohio. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.