Voters reflect after casting ballots
By Bella Butler and Brandon Walker
BOZEMAN – After a record number of Montana voters turned in ballots both by mail and in-person, Montana Republican candidates cleaned up in statewide elections, setting a new tone for Montana’s government.
As of Nov. 2, total absentee ballots received outpaced the former overall voter turnout record from 2016, and masked voters in socially distanced lines capped off the total state turnout number at 603,121, approximately an 80 percent return rate, as of EBS press time.
On Election Day, the issue of party shifts in part brought large numbers of Gallatin County citizens to the polls at the Gallatin County Courthouse and the county fairgrounds, according to some voters.
“It’s a very high stakes election,” said Bozeman resident Hannah Johnson. “There’s a lot more going on than normal, so it’s extra important that I came out and voted today.”
Another Bozeman voter, Janece Martin, said the prospect of either Joe Biden or Donald Trump winning the presidency created anxiety on both sides of the aisle, while Bozeman resident MaryClare Rollins pointed to the importance of civic duty.
“There aren’t that many things that are expected of us to contribute to our democracy,” Rollins said. “You have to do jury duty. You have to pay your taxes and you show up and you vote on Election Day and I like that.”
Voters at the Gallatin County Fairgrounds waited patiently in lines for roughly half an hour on average, according to county election representatives, while those voting at the Gallatin County Courthouse saw hour-and-a-half wait times. Fairgrounds voters were equipped with masks, and hand sanitizing stations were close by.
In order to carry out in-person voting as safely as possible, orange traffic safety cones in lines indicated the appropriate distance voters should stand from one another.
Despite COVID-inspired changes, Gallatin County voter turnout hit 81 percent, with 71,818 votes cast, a less than 7 percent increase in turnout but a nearly 16,000-vote increase from the last presidential election in 2016. The county voted Democrat for all statewide and federal races, and will send one Republican state senator, one Democratic state senator, four Republican state representatives, and six Democratic state representatives to the Montana Legislature.
“Voting is one of the most important American rights,” said Dakota Fryrear, a resident of Belgrade, adding that he witnessed an increase in voters casting their ballots on Election Day in the younger age demographic.
“What we see here is that younger voters, so those 18 to 29, did turn out in Montana and they voted Republican, which is not necessarily anticipated,” said Eric Raile, an associate professor of political science at Montana State University. “Usually Democratic candidates do better with younger voters [and] all indications were that they would do better with younger voters again. We don’t know if those younger voters voted Republican all the way down the ballot, but it seems likely that they did given that Republicans won just about everything in terms of statewide races and a lot of the state Senate and House races.”
In Gallatin County, the Senate race has so far collectively received the most votes of any race, and Initiative 190, to legalize marijuana recreationally, has garnered the most votes in the county among the ballot measures. These two races were also notable for their robust campaign finances. Indeed, in mid-October, CNN named Montana’s Senate race the fifth most expensive in the country.
Montana may also be skewing even more conservative, according to Jeremy Johnson, associate professor of political science at Carroll College in Helena. “The areas that we’ve really thought about as swing areas in Montana have really moved red,” said Johnson, citing counties including Cascade and Yellowstone.
With a large number of voters indicating interest in a unified Republican government, MSU’s Raile said Montana may start to resemble its devoutly conservative neighboring states.
“I think the expectation overall would be that we’re probably looking at policies more like what we see in … the Dakotas, Wyoming and Idaho,” Raile said. “We don’t know for sure and I think there’s a larger liberal population in Montana than you have in those states, but I don’t know that liberals are going to have a lot of avenues for pursuing their interests in the next two years.”
In the high-profile Senate race pitting Democrat Gov. Steve Bullock against the incumbent, Republican Sen. Steve Daines, the Associated Press unofficially called a Daines victory. Following suit, the AP announced Republican Greg Gianforte’s defeat over opponent Democrat Mike Cooney.
Other unofficial statewide victors include Republicans Christi Jacobsen for Secretary of State, Austin Knudsen for Attorney General and Troy Downing for State Auditor. From Big Sky’s House District 64, Republican Jane Gillette won the representative seat.
According to Johnson, an “engaged and active Trump electorate” gave Montana Republicans the prevailing edge. For the first time since 2004, Montana will have unified government through the marriage of a Republican governor and Republican-controlled Legislature. “There’s going to be changes,” Johnson said of Montana’s new political landscape in a Nov. 4 interview. “Elections have consequences.”
Johnson predicted that issues that have not held much attention in Montana’s government will gain a spotlight. “It will not be good for labor unions in the state, it will be more pro-business legislation introduced,” he said, adding that conservative takes on social issues like abortion will likely gain more traction.
Despite the outcomes of the election, Bozeman voter Martin expressed a call for unity.
“Regardless of who wins or loses, there’s going to be a lot of people who … need support,” Martin said. “We really need each other as Americans not to become more divided because of who won or lost, but to be more connected.”