Maybe it was Jack Kennedy’s good looks or Richard Nixon’s sinister looking 5 o’clock shadow. Then again, it could have been American’s newfound love for television. What ever the cause, U.S. voter turnout reached its zenith after the famous televised Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates but has been heading downhill ever since.
“We have never equaled that 1960 turnout,” says Montana Secretary of State Bob Brown. “And if you compare the rate of voting in the United States after that to the other industrialized democracies around the world, we are way low. A lot more people vote in Sweden and in Italy and in Germany, and that’s a concern for us.”
In an effort to reverse this trend, Montana’s secretary of state has launched a three-part plan aimed at motivating Montanans to vote and educating them about candidates and issues. The plan includes forums in which candidates answer questions from high school students via videotape, a “bring a friend to vote” public service campaign, and public debates on various ballot initiatives.
Montana, like the rest of the nation, has experienced this 40-year slide toward apathy. In non-presidential election years, Montana’s voter turnout has dropped an average of 2.4 percent each election since 1974. In 1998 only 53 percent of Montanans voted in the general election.
“It’s an unhealthy sign for a representative democracy to have somewhere approaching 50 percent of the people who are eligible to vote do so and roughly 50 percent of them who don’t even bother to vote,” says Brown. A 1999 study by Project Vote Smart and the Pew Charitable Trust concluded that people are more likely to vote when they are well informed about the voting process, candidates and ballot issues. This is the goal of Brown’s campaign.
“Sometimes people are intimidated by the legalese in the voter information pamphlet,” says Brown. “So we are inviting the people who are giving the pro and con arguments [on ballot initiatives] in the voter information pamphlet to either be present as debaters or to designate someone else to be present.”
Brown has rounded up average citizens and state legislators to debate the issues in Great Falls, Helena, Billings and Missoula. This is first time that ballot issue debates have taken place in Montana and Brown hopes they alleviate voter anxiety and apathy.
The Missoula debate is scheduled for Sept. 26 at 7 p.m. in the University of Montana University Center Ballroom. The Oct. 1 debate in Helena will be broadcast throughout the state. The secretary will moderate all four debates.