When young Missoulians turned out to the polls in big numbers last November, the response should have been an embrace of the newly engaged youth. After years of hearing about how young people didn’t care about politics, in this election Montana’s youth decided the fate of a U.S. Senate race. They also likely provided the margin of victory for the Missoula marijuana initiative, a measure that made adult marijuana offenses the lowest priority for local law enforcement.
Unfortunately, now – because some people dislike these results – a campaign is being waged against young voters, accusing them of being lazy, uninformed, and thoughtless, when it comes to political decision-making.
The Montana state legislature is considering HB 281, a bill that would end Election Day Registration in Montana. Nearly 4,000 Montanans took advantage of Election Day Registration, sometimes waiting in line for hours for the opportunity to vote.
Here in Missoula County, elected officials including the County Attorney and our County Commission are intent on significantly weakening the marijuana initiative, claiming that the people who passed it simply did not know what they were doing.
Let’s make no mistake. Some young voters are lazy. Some are uninformed. So are some older voters.
Academic research backs up the fact that young voters tend to be informed voters. Uninformed youth, according to studies, simply don’t bother to vote, meaning those who do vote care enough to not just participate in the democratic process, but to do so knowledgably.
Over the past several years, I have spent a lot of time educating and engaging voters of all ages. My experience has taught me that there are some extremely well educated young voters, And, as would be expected, there are some “more experienced” individuals who have taken no time to self-educate themselves about current politics.
This isn’t a “youth” problem. It’s a human problem and it’s an unavoidable flaw in a democratic society.
The question at the heart of the matter – whether certain people can be trusted with the powers of self-government – is at its heart a question of democracy. Two hundred years ago, a number of individuals launched a great experiment called America based on the premise that all of us are smarter than any one of us. Over the years, this system has been expanded, slowly granting the right to vote to groups other than land-owning white men.
This is not to say that representative democracy is without its problems. It is worth remembering the words of Winston Churchill. “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
If we intend to use a democratic form of government, then we must encourage everyone, including our youth, to vote. In this case, that means allowing same-day voter registration – the single election reform proven most likely to increase participation without increasing the risk of fraud.
County elections officials no doubt oppose Election Day Registration because of the inconvenience it places on them. However, we cannot, as a state or a country, turn away voters because it isn’t convenient. If there are technical problems, let’s find a way to smooth-out the process, rather than excluding people from the process.
While county officials may have fair concerns over our current process, it is hard to believe that all of its opponents are arguing in good faith. The Montana House’s Republican majority is assuredly upset that a landslide of young votes helped knock U.S. Senator Conrad Burns out of office. Our County Commissioners and County Attorney are likely equally upset that young voters provided the impetus for passage of the marijuana initiative that they opposed.
Disagreement is as American as apple pie. But if bad decision-making was a fit excuse for exclusion from the process, why exactly would we exclude the generation least responsible for the national debt, global warming, the Iraq War, and the stagnation of wages for American workers?
The good news for America is that by all measures the generation currently coming of voting age is among the most publicly minded in years. The decisions that this generation will make will no doubt be different than some of the decisions made by our parents and grandparents (who, thankfully, often disagreed with their own parents and grandparents). But these disagreements are no grounds for exclusion.
Please welcome the young generation of voters. I am confident in their ability to be involved and to make sound decisions. One day we too will have to deal with the “darn kids” and their crazy ideas. Being involved now will help us to usher in that new generation with guidance, knowledge, and support, as older generations have for us.
Matt Singer is the CEO of Forward Montana, a non-profit organization dedicated to engaging, mobilizing, and electing a new generation of leaders.