Recent Montana State University graduate Kiah Abbey has been in volved in local politics in Montana for nearly a year. The 23-year-old has done a lot of work helping her peers register for voting, but her favorite achievement was when she helped Bozeman pass a nondiscrimination ordinance this spring.
“I’m really proud of the work we did on the Bozeman NDO,” she said. “Ensuring that my community is safe, welcoming and inclusive to everyone that works, lives and plays there is a top priority for me.”
Abbey is just one of many Millennials (those who reached young adulthood around the year 2000) who are interested and involved in local politics – although obstacles can limit their involvement.
“I think the reasons students don’t get involved in politics are similar to why people generally don’t get involved in politics,” Abbey said. “It’s messy and emotional. It’s time consuming and can be heart wrenching. It’s hard to see the long-term benefits of a process that is constantly being cast as broken. Unfortunately, the system stays broken if people continue to not get involved.”
Despite this, many young Montanans are still getting involved in local politics.
“I would say that the young people that we encounter are not any less interested in local issues than people of other ages,” said Kayje Booker, the chief executive officer of youth-oriented political organization Montana First, for which Abbey and hundreds of other local college students volunteer. “They are very passionate about making their community and the world a better place.”
Aaron Flint, host of the “Voices of Montana” radio talk show and editor of the news blog “The Flint Report,” agrees:
“Too often the older generations don’t realize how effective young people actually are in politics,” he said. “When young people show up at events, sometimes you’ll hear the older crowd say, ‘Oh how nice it is to have some young people here.’ The reality is that some of the most effective political operatives here in Montana have been in their 20s. The older crowds will talk about the younger people as ‘the future’ when the reality is that they’re getting the job done now.”
Problems with politics
several hurdles can limit college-aged students’ participation in local politics. According to Booker, one of these is that “young people are less connected to local political structures than older folks.”
She continued, “At times, they do not connect the issues that they care about to local politics, perhaps in part because of the decline of civics education and in part because there is not a lot of good outreach from local governmental institutions to young people.”
Doug Kary, vice chairman of the Montana Republican Party, agreed.
“Interest in local politics most often does not enter into students’ minds,” he said.
Another hurdle that limits student involvement in local politics is something that affects us all: lack of time.
“Everyone, young and old, has a lot going on in their lives, and has to make tough decisions about where to spend their time and energy,” Booker said. “The more relevant the issues are and the more people feel that they have a real opportunity to make a difference, the more likely they are to choose to spend their time working on those issues.”
College students have even less time on their hands than other people. A recent Huffington Post study reported that four out of five college students are working part-time, averaging 19 hours a week, while earning their degree. Between work and school, not much time is left for politics.
In addition to these issues, many Millennials are reluctant to be tied to a political system, including political parties, that they feel is broken.
A recent Gallup poll revealed that only 44 percent of Americans saw the Democratic Party in a positive light while only 34 percent saw the Republican Party positively. This is the lowest ever for either party during an election year.
Another recent Gallup poll recorded that the level of confidence in the president was at a six-year low (29 percent) while confidence in the Supreme Court and Congress was at an all-time low – 30 percent and 7 percent, respectively.
“In general, polling and our own anecdotal evidence has shown that young people feel less tied to parties than older folks,” Booker said. “They are much more likely to volunteer for an issue-based organization or a candidate than a political party.”
Flint says that another issue limiting political involvement is that many young people take their freedoms for granted and often aren’t willing to fight for them.
“We’re at a crossroads as a country right now, and our generation needs to decide something,” he said. “Do we want to be free, or just get something for free?”
Trying to make a connection
So how can Millennials become connected to local politics? According to Booker, local politicians should make a greater effort to connect with the younger generation.
“Candidates can do a better job of reaching out to young people by talking about issues that matter to young people, meeting young people where they are at, and leading with a positive message about how they will make changes that will affect young people,” she said.
Booker also thinks that politics often has a stigma of “being boring and not very fun” and that students would be more likely to take part in politics if politicians took themselves less seriously. That is why Montana Forward has hosted events like “Candi-dating,” which is like speed dating to meet candidates, and “Candidate Fear Factor” where candidates have to complete quirky tasks in addition to answering questions.
Flint agreed. “Don’t just host the same old fundraisers and dinners,” he said. “Think of events where people can enjoy themselves and get their message across.”
However, Booker emphasizes that “young people aren’t just looking to be entertained – the real impact comes from speaking to them and working with them on issues that are relevant to their lives and that they care about.”
Abbey feels that young people need to be educated about the political process in order to make a difference.
“My peers need to know how the system works and they’ll realize that we have the opportunity to make it work well or make it work poorly,” she said. “Democracy is a lot like Santa Claus. It only lives if you believe in it … . Our whole team at Forward Montana works really hard to not just convince, but educate and inspire our peers to be involved.”
Kary feels that Millennials are often more interested in national politics and that they can develop an appreciation for local politics through that field.
“It is from their interest in the national spectrum that they become aware of what the role of local politics is and how they work together,” he said.
Flint suggests that Millennials will be more willing to participate in politics when they see others their age – like 27-year-old Montana legislator Daniel Zolnikov – who are doing it well.
“Having younger leaders in the Legislature is helping as well,” he said. “When guys like Rep. Daniel Zolnikov start making a national impression on the issues important to young people, it encourages others to step up to the plate.”
Many precinct positions open
With many Millennials only working on issues that they feel are relevant to their lives, some other aspects of local politics are left unattended.
One of these is precinct positions. Of the 3,186 Montana precinct positions, only 571 were filled by the filing deadline of March 10, 2014. This means that 2,601 open positions still exist.
“People don’t want to, nor do most have time to be an effective precinct person,” Kary said.
He continued, “Precinct positions in Montana are hard to fill and many remain unfilled. Our world and our neighborhoods are changing. Neighbors don’t know each other, people are more mobile than they have ever been, moving from one neighborhood to another and from town to town much more often. Work schedules vary much more than they ever have with people working different hours and different days so contacting someone at home is more difficult. All of these are reasons that many precinct positions remain unfilled.”
Abbey agreed. “I think in Montana particularly there’s a difference in our sense of our community that has an effect on our political participation,” she said. “Our population has certainly grown and with that growth has come a decentralized politics. This has fed political apathy because of the lack of relationships. It’s this double edged sword that comes with social media ... . Friends are both easier and harder to come by; politics is all at once easier and harder to get involved with.”