New guide aims to attract young voters

Rachel Huff-Doria, left, and Kiah Abbey on the prowl in Billings for young voters.

David Crisp/Last Best News

Rachel Huff-Doria, left, and Kiah Abbey on the prowl in Billings for young voters.

At a time in campaign season when election-weary voters are curling up into tiny balls to ward off the endless phone calls, TV ads and door knockers, one group of young people in Montana is revving up its efforts.

Forward Montana, aiming to attract voters from ages 16 to 30, goes online today with a voter guide at www.americanvoterguide.org/montana. Print versions of 20,000 copies will follow in selected Montana cities in early October.

Their efforts fly in the face of claims that young people are disengaged from and ignorant about politics.

“With every generation of young people, there’s no shortage of caring,” says Kiah Abbey, deputy director of the group.

Forward Montana was founded in 2004 by Matt Singer, a former Montana blogger who now lives in Portland, Ore. The group focuses on what It calls the six E’s: equal rights, environmental protection, education, election reform, economic strength and fairness, and ’ealth care.

Obstacles, according to the group’s website at forwardmontana.org, are that ballots are confusing with long lists of candidates and issues; voter registration is difficult for mobile young people who haven’t developed the voting habit; and young people find politics boring, unattractive and no fun.

The solutions include voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts, voter guides and leadership development in the form of new organizers and candidates. It’s all aimed at breaking the cycle of disengagement, Abbey says.

“We hate politics, and the more we hate politics, the more we disengage,” she says. That, in turn, leads to even more disengagement.

Drawing the attention of a younger crowd seems to require unconventional tactics. Rachel Huff-Doria, who works in Missoula for Forward Montana, says that one question organizers ask prospective voters is, “What do you give a shit about?”

“We actually have buttons that say, ‘I give a shit,’” she says. “They love that.”

She isn’t kidding. Forward Montana activists were handing out “I give a shit” buttons last week at Rocky Mountain College.

Key to the effort are the online and in-print voter guides, which Forward Montana has compiled since 2014. Last year, the guides covered municipal races.

In Billings, a team of four people—Ryan Shore, Shawn Francis, Kate Olp-Restad and Jen Gross—identified priority races and prepared a questionnaire of yes-and-no questions.

Gross has gone on to an even more active political role. When Robyn Driscoll was appointed to fill the Yellowstone County Commission seat of Bill Kennedy, Gross was selected by Yellowstone County Democrats in August to run for her Senate District 25 seat.

The voting guides cover races for Congress, governor and statewide offices and Supreme Court races, plus the medical marijuana initiative. The guide for Billings will add legislative and Public Service Commission races. About a third of candidates had responded by mid-August, Abbey says.

The guide for Bozeman also will include Gallatin County commissioner races. There are no contested races for county commissioner in Yellowstone County. That’s just a small measure of the extent to which voting concerns vary from place to place.

“Gun rights come up constantly in Bozeman,” Abbey says, “never in Missoula.”

Abbey says her own interest in politics goes back to West High School, where she was in student government and the Young Republicans. Her goal then was to get involved in social projects, but soon, she says, “I realized I loved making public policy.”

She has been president of the student body at Montana State University Bozeman, where she studied political science.

Huff-Doria, who at age 28 is the oldest staff member in the Forward Montana office, came to politics by a more circuitous route. She was involved with Students for Barack Obama at Marshall University in West Virginia in 2008 and found out that a campus I.D. could not be used to vote.

“We felt like it was pretty discriminatory,” she says.

Huff-Doria and Abbey say they do not have blinders on when it comes to American politics in the 21st century.

“There is some corruption in politics,” Huff-Doria says. If not, she adds, there would be no need to get involved to make it better. Voting is a habit, she says, so it’s important to develop the habit early.

Forward Montana is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization. It is affiliated with the Forward MT Voter Fund and the Forward Montana Foundation. It also is a member of the Bus Federation, a group of eight statewide organizations, mostly in the West, with similar goals.

The organization conducted some 3,000 conversations with potential voters on issues such as public lands last year, Abbey says. Former state Sen. Kendall Van Dyke credited a Forward Montana bus tour with his four-vote election to the Legislature.

The federation, based in Portland, also is headed by Singer. Its projects include a National Voter Registration Day on Sept. 27 and a Great American Voter Guide. Local radio stations will help promote the Billings registration day.

Abbey says funding comes largely from memberships ranging from $2 to $100 a month. The foundation also gets individual donations and grants.

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