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.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.