For a century, Montana's voters turned out in record high election-day numbers. Throughout the 1900s, Montanan's streamed to the polling places; our percentage of voters was always among the top five states in the nation, with Massachusetts and Minnesota usually leading the way. Eleven times, Montanans broke above 80 percent turnout, with the highest occurring in 1952, 1960 and 1964. Those were the presidential election years of Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, with turnout reaching toward an astonishing 90 percent.
That has changed. In four of our most recent seven general elections, Montana turnout has plummeted below 60 percent, and this year voter turnout reached a near-record low of only 56 percent.
The results of low turnouts are almost always the same: Candidates on the political fringe win. This year, victories went to the most conservative of the Republican candidates. The most recent post-election research found that this year 203,429 Montanans cast their votes for Republican candidates to the Montana House of Representatives. Thus, only 31 percent of Montana's registered voters determined 68 percent of Montana House seats. That represents a record for minority control of our state legislature.
Montana witnessed an incredible 26 percent drop in voter turnout. In Missoula and Great Falls, the decline was almost 40 percent. Throughout the state, most of those who stayed home were Democrats. That made all the difference in razor-thin margins in Lake, Flathead, Lewis and Clark counties as well as on the Native American reservations.
'Persuadable' voters targeted
Why was Republican turnout so much higher than that of the Democrats? Of course, the bad economy was part of it, but the Republican voter turnout apparatus was also far better funded and considerably more sophisticated. Republicans hired a Colorado direct mail and marketing company, Wilard Direct, which scoured the personal data of Montanans in a successful effort to identify “persuadable” conservative voters. The company sorted through individual hunting licenses, magazine subscriptions and voting records of many thousands of Montanans and, the company claims, got 75 percent of them to the polls.
Despite that effort, one wonders if the recent low overall turnout phenomenon is responsible for not only minority rule in Montana but also our seemingly schizophrenic national voting patterns.
America's voters have been lurching from landslide to landslide. During this decade we have witnessed two back-to-back presidential election sweeps, one by George W. Bush in 2004 and the other by Barack Obama in 2008. Voters have voted in landslide proportions for congressional Republicans in 1992 and for Democrats in both 2006 and 2008. This year voters switched again and overwhelmingly elected Republicans to the U.S. House and Senate.
Searching for savior
We seem uncertain and vacillating; a voting public searching in vain for the magic savior. Perhaps two reasons account for our election-day scrambling. For 30 years Americans have been encouraged, by some, to believe that the two political parties are peas in a pod — no difference between them. We have also been told that elected officials are not to be trusted.
We all seem to be affected by the “Tiger Woods syndrome”: who and what can we trust? Too many of our priests and ministers, our banks, and other once trusted institutions have disappointed us. The only place where we can directly express our outrage is in the voting booth. Thus, it is the candidates who disproportionally feel our wrath.
Is it any wonder that following 30 years of incessant anti-government rhetoric from many Democrats and virtually every Republican, the American people have either stopped going to the polls on election day or, once there, have cast a too often thoughtless ballot to simply “throw the rascals out.”
Neither political party nor our government are well served by this cabal. Low voter turnouts and lack of reasonable stability in our political choices are dangerous for America here at home and certainly abroad.
Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S.
representative from Montana before retiring. He is teaching at The University of Montana.