Montana may not be considered a swing state in the upcoming presidential election, but it is a state in which “a small number of people can really swing an election,” says Montana Women Vote (MWV) Project Coordinator Terry Kendrick. “We’ve had city elections that have been decided by six or eight votes,” she says. “A lot of Montana races are decided by two percentage points.” So when Kendrick (who works at the YWCA and homeWORD) and colleagues affiliated with organizations such as Planned Parenthood and the Montana Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault estimated that about 30 percent of the women using their services weren’t voting, they took action.
In the summer of 2000, they founded MWV, a non-partisan coalition of nine organizations statewide “with the purpose of educating and mobilizing low-income women to vote and to participate in public policy decisions that affect their lives,” says Kendrick. Their first goal that year was to increase female voter registration by 5 percent in targeted communities in Butte, Missoula and Helena; they increased registration by 9 to 15 percent.
With the 2004 election nearing, MWV has coordinators in Missoula, Helena and Billings (and coming soon in Great Falls and Bozeman) working to register 5,000 women voters through community outreach programs. Right now, they’ve reached about half that goal.
Women tend to “feel like politicians don’t care about the things they care about,” says Kendrick. Also, she says, women in rural areas or with children can have trouble getting to the polls; thus, one of MWV’s first efforts was to mail absentee ballot applications so women could vote from home.
And there’s the “personal connection” to voting, says Kendrick—women tending to be influenced by their social circles’ actions. You might be more inclined to go for a walk, for example, says Kendrick, if a friend asks you to go. MWV’s door-to-door voter-guide distribution strives to make such a personal connection.
“I’m concerned,” says Kendrick, “that people are wondering, does their vote count, does it matter? In Montana in particular, one person’s voice really does matter.”