While ballots were still being counted in precincts across the state, Christopher Muste stood before his intro class on political science fielding questions from students.
For many college-aged voters, Tuesday marked their first election and, like most Americans, they too felt a sense of post-election relief.
The ugly campaigns were over at last.
“The students are trying to figure out what happened, and if it will always be like this,” said Muste, an associate professor of political science at the University of Montana. “The questions they raised are questions everyone has – why is it so difficult to vote, why are there so many negative ads, why isn’t there a limit on campaign money. They’re in the process of digesting it.”
They also may be trying to digest the role they played in the outcome of several statewide races this year. In Montana, an analysis of returns and county-by-county voter turnout is under way to gauge the role the college vote played in the election.
Given Tuesday’s long voter lines in Bozeman and Missoula – home of the state’s two largest universities – experts suspect that the youth vote may prove strong once again. The student-heavy precincts, Muste said, may show the greatest statewide increase in turnout.
“We saw the longer lines in Missoula and Gallatin counties in 2006 the first year there was same-day registration for the Montana Senate race,” said Muste. “A lot of (Jon) Tester’s margin came from those two places.”
Tester won that race in 2006, topping former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns by just 3,562 votes. Many believed the student vote would again play a crucial role in Tester’s re-election bid, and perhaps it did, experts said.
Andrea Marcoccio, executive director of Forward Montana, said the organization is currently working to poll its numbers to assess student turnout. The group registered 11,421 students at UM and Montana State heading into the election.
“We had an additional 17,000 young people register statewide this year,” she said. “A huge percent was people we had face-to-face contact with. We spent 30 days prior to the election talking to folks, meeting them, going door to door and turning them out to vote.”
The group also launched some edgy campaigns to get the attention of students, joining the national “Vote F*cker” effort born in Oregon. Volunteers at UM on Tuesday said the slogan was aimed at young voters who felt the older generation was attempting to suppress their voice.
Marcoccio said Forward Montana also pushed hard to turn out support for Steve Bullock, who narrowly defeated Rick Hill in the gubernatorial race.
“We knocked on thousands of doors in support of Bullock’s stance on education, his proposal to freeze tuition,” said Marcoccio. “Our demographic is directly impacted by the policies of our next governor, and I think students were a determining factor in the outcome.”
Muste said students had mixed feelings about the outcome of the election. While UM is often branded as a liberal bastion, he said that’s not necessarily true, and many young conservative voters were disappointed by the election results.
“My Republican students are a little in shock,” he said. “They expected things to go better, both in the state and nationally as well. But for all of them, regardless of party, they believe the system has flaws worth fixing, but it’s not hopelessly broken.”
Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, firstname.lastname@example.org or @martinkidston.