Flathead, Montana see big increase in young voters

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Voter turnout rates among Montana’s youth have swelled in recent years, from nearly 18 percent in 2014 to just over 42 percent last year in 2018, according to a report from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE.

The organization, which specializes in research on young people in the United States, looked at a combination of exit-poll data and then calculated state-by-state and national youth voter turnout using voter files to gather their data. All together, the report looked at 17 states for which voter file data first became available. Of those analyzed, every state increased youth turnout by at least eight percentage points from 2014 to 2018. The age range for youth is considered to be those 18 to 29 years old.

Montana saw the largest increase of almost 25 percentage points. Tailing close to Montana were Minnesota, Georgia and Nevada, all of which saw right around 20 percentage-point increases.

In Flathead County, youth voter turnout increased 23 percentage points from 2014 to 2018 from 20 percent to 43 percent, according to data available through the Montana Secretary of State Office.

The improvement in voter turnout can be attributed to the multiple colleges, high schools and organizations statewide that have pushed one of the nation’s largest demographics to hit the polling stations.

“For the majority of young people we are speaking with, they are new voters and they are learning that participating in our democracy and election is like anything else, you need to build a habit,” said Kiah Abbey, deputy director of Forward Montana. “If you vote when you’re young, you’re more likely to continue voting every year.”

Forward Montana is an organization that encourages young adults to be active in their local communities by advocating for their beliefs through voting and other means. Abbey said the organization works with colleges such as Montana State University and Flathead Valley Community College and other facilities statewide to give youths the resources to vote in every election.

During the 2018 election cycle, Forward Montana registered 7,791 voters. Abbey said the recent report demonstrates the fruits of Forward Montana and other organizations’ labors.

“We [Forward Montana] pour our hearts into this work,” Abbey said. “It’s meaningful when you can see the impacts of it all.”

From 2014 to 2018, Forward Montana expanded its office locations from Missoula to include Bozeman and Billings, and it also worked to integrate the organization into various counties by working with passionate local leaders. Abbey said among other methods for encouraging voting, Forward Montana sent out more than 48,000 voter guides in 2018. Those who received the guides were 38 percent more likely to vote than those who didn’t receive them.

In Flathead County, Jane Karas, president of Flathead Valley Community College, said every year the college works to provide students with the basics, such as helping new voters understand the registration and completion processes.

“We provide students an opportunity to register to vote and exercise their rights as Americans,” Karas said. “Once they turn 18 it’s important for them to know they need to become active voting citizens.”

The Center’s report estimated 31 percent of eligible people within the young voter age range voted in the 2018 midterms — an increase of about 10 percentage points from 2014.

“We estimate this is by far the highest level of participation among youth in the past quarter century — the last seven midterm elections during which we’ve been using the same calculation method,” the report notes.

Abbey said young voters tend to rally behind issues that are specifically related to them. For example, the continuation of the 6-mill levy that helps financially support higher education and defrays the cost of tuition for Montana students, was a hot topic of concern with young voters in last year’s general election.

“When this generation sees issues that affect us actually show up on the ballot we are more likely to show up to vote,” Abbey said.

She also said she hopes people continue providing funding to Forward Montana and other organizations like theirs in the coming years in order to make sure young voters keep building healthy voting habits.

“Young people need to be engaged year round. We need to make sure there is funding to do big election work,” Abbey said. “I hope people continue to invest in our youth.”

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com

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