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Table 1: Missoula County turnout in US congressional race

“I'm going to have to work a little harder to find that common ground, but that's the job the people of Montana have apparently hired me for." — U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Montana, in the Missoulian, Nov. 7, 2018.


Exactly what is it you’d say you do here, Greg?

Forgive Gianforte for taking two elections and a year and a half in Washington, D.C., to realize he works for all Montanans, not just those who voted for him: he has poor political role models.

Thankfully, voters in our state and city are better versed in civics.

Now that the tallies are complete (data as of Nov. 28), it’s clear Montanans took voting as seriously as any congressional district or state (one and the same in our and six other cases).

504,000 Montanans voted in the race for U.S. representative won by Gianforte over Kathleen Williams by just 4.6 percent. That’s more than voted in any of the other 434 House races. (In this respect, it helps that Montana’s district is America’s single most populous, with all 1 million-plus of us having just the one representative. Current congressional districts average roughly 700,000 people each.)

Additional measures of voter engagement were equally stout:

First, according to Montana’s secretary of state, statewide turnout for this election was 71.5 percent of registered voters. Only 55 percent turned out for both the 2017 special election and the 2014 midterms.

Second, and more impressively, Montana’s 2018 election garnered 101.5 percent of its 2016 turnout when the presidency was at stake, according to House polling guru Dave Wasserman. No U.S. district did better, even in an election with remarkably high turnout nationwide: 82.5 percent of 2016’s vote. (Elections with the president — directly, that is — on the ballot see better turnout than midterms: at 49.4 percent of those voting-eligible; this was the highest midterm percentage nationwide since 1914. That’s not a misprint. You know who wasn’t eligible in 1914? Women.)

What about Missoula itself?

The county’s 2018 turnout far exceeded 2014’s — 61,600 votes versus 42,000, 72 percent of registered voters versus 49 percent — and even exceeded by 1,000 votes (if not percentage) the 2016 canvass (71.9-73.7 percent turnout).

Additionally, given his less than 18,000-vote margin statewide (50.3-46.8 percent), one might argue that Missoula re-elected Sen. Jon Tester: he won the county by 23,000 votes (68-30 percent). Meanwhile, Missoula chose Williams over Gianforte by 31 percentage points (64-33 percent) and nearly 19,000 votes.

What’s the takeaway? For Gianforte, it’s that Montana’s second-largest city is watching. As Missoula’s vote totals grew after 2014, the county also grew more engaged and more Democratic.

Kalispell and Billings, like Missoula, saw turnout increase from 2014 to 2018. But despite their Republican slant, both also saw their partisan lean and vote margin shift significantly towards the Democrats. And just 8,000 fewer votes were cast in Missoula than Yellowstone, a county with 40,000 more people.

As Missoula, Bozeman and even Billings grow and get younger, there aren’t enough over-55 voters in all the Rockies to counterbalance this Democratic trend. Considering Gianforte won his best counties, Yellowstone and Flathead, by 18,000 combined, he’d best come to terms with being Missoula’s representative, too.

Montana voters, Republicans and Democrats, should be congratulated for turning out, along with state and county officials for running a smooth election.

But Missoula, ya done especially good. Now keep it up.

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Jon-Claud Nix is a former Marine Corps officer. He worked previously in national security and economic policy and politics, and now resides in Missoula.

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