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Moderators from Helena Youth Against Gun Violence Amalie Hodges, left, and Amanda Penley, center, (copy)

Moderators from Helena Youth Against Gun Violence Amalie Hodges, left, and Amanda Penley, center, listen to a response during last month's town hall regarding gun violence and youth activism at Helena Middle School.

Thom Bridge, thom.bridge@helenair.com

After watching young people around the country and in Montana engaging more in politics, Carroll College associate professor of political science Alex Street is paying close attention to see if that energy will translate to showing up at the polls for this year's midterm election.

Street said Friday he often gives students in his classes a hard time about how low voter turnout is among their demographic.

He recently calculated — using Lewis and Clark County voter information paired with U.S. Census data — that just 20.1 percent of those ages 20-24 voted in the 2017 special election to pick a new congressman after Ryan Zinke was named secretary of the Interior.

That was the lowest of any age group, Street found, and less than half of the turnout for those ages 35 and up.

Lewis and Clark County is as good a place as any to represent Montana as a whole, Street said, because it doesn't have a large college-age population that might be registered in other towns or states, and has a mix of urban and rural areas.

In some ways, because of historically low turnout among younger voters, the big voting jump some are predicting in that age group this year seems unlikely, Street said, but there are some positive indicators.

“There’s some signs around the country of young people paying more attention to politics at the moment,” Street said. “Probably the most obvious sign is the young people organizing around gun control after the Parkland school shooting.”

Street mentioned the group that formed locally, Helena Youth Against Gun Violence, after the Valentine's Day school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that took 17 lives. Since forming in February, the group has been politically active, holding a panel with congressional candidates to discuss gun violence and participating in school walkouts.

On Friday, Helena High junior Dan Ruether-Affor said while the group works hard to be nonpartisan and listen to everyone's ideas, it has talked a lot about getting people registered to vote and making sure they're informed enough to feel confident when they go to the polls.

So far, Helena Youth Against Gun Violence has had other groups register people at events they've held. But the group expects to do more voter registration and create more buzz around voting, with a registration drive at the end of May and a table at the local farmers market.

People tend to vote, Street said, because of social pressures that are more prevalent in their lives as they age.

“That’s kind of a fairly widely accepted idea in political science,” Street said. “Nobody’s voting because they’re going to swing the election. There’s a bit of a sense of civic duty, but you need to have that activated by people reminding you to vote, asking you to vote.”

That happens at the workplace, at churches, in social organizations and other places where people establish themselves. Younger people who are more mobile and just entering these groups don't get that pressure, Street said. Political preferences are also just firming up in a person’s late teens or early 20s.

Reuther-Afford said that rings true for him.

"Sometimes you just forget," Reuther-Afford said. "It can be the last thing on your mind when you're trying to plan graduation, a grad party." Graduation is June 2 and the primary is June 5.

For the 17-year-old, though, his recent political engagement has made him more eager to vote when he's old enough, and he wants to make sure the young people he knows, vote too.

"It's something we're excited to focus on," Reuther-Afford said.

Street, who will track turnout by age demographic in the primary and general elections, said he's guessing that Montana will see a possibly slightly higher turnout for younger voters in the midterms, but he doesn’t expect a huge difference.

The 2017 special election didn't have a huge bump in young turnout, and it came on the heels of the election of President Donald Trump and the massive Women’s March that drew about 10,000 people to the Capitol in Helena on a cold January day.

Still, in that race Democratic candidate Rob Quist had more excitement and voters than would typically be expected in a special election, losing to Republican Rep. Gianforte by a smaller margin than former state Superintendent Denise Juneau, a Democrat, did to Republican Zinke.

And since then, Democrats have been riding the much-discussed Democratic Blue Wave, with victories in state legislative seats and high-profile special congressional elections.

On the ballot in Montana this year, in addition to county-level races, are a slew of state legislative seats and two spots on the state Public Service Commission. At the top of the ticket Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte and Democrat U.S. Sen. Jon Tester are running for re-election.

Tester's race is expected to be one of the hardest-fought and most expensive in the country, as Democrats nationally are trying to win back a majority and Republicans are trying to keep a unified government in Washington.

If younger voters were to show up at a higher rate than in the past, it could have an effect on who wins in Montana this fall, Street said.

“There are some signs of younger people being more engaged, but we don’t know yet. We have to wait until November to really find that out.”

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