From the Opinion Desk: Campus and County Leadership Failing Young Voters

Joe Skinner, Steve White and Don Seifert likely have many things in common. They’re all Gallatin County Commissioners; more importantly, they’re all Gallatin County Commissioners who chose to prioritize their budget (among other things) over the safety of voters in the upcoming elections, undermining the democratic process. A basic google search (or middle school US history class) provides that a democracy is a “government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.” The U.S. is officially a democratic republic, further emphasizing that the authority lies in the hands of the citizens who are represented in their republic by elected officials. As such, it is critical that our country has the highest voter turnout possible in order that everyone is equally and fairly represented.

In choosing to move the polling location from the MSU campus to Hope Lutheran Church, the commissioners also chose to move it to a location that requires voters to travel nearly a mile on 19th from Kagy to the church – a stretch that does not have a sidewalk, bike lane or shoulder. In choosing not to fund a bus route servicing that location during elections, the commissioners chose to endanger the lives of voters who don’t have access to a private vehicle.

The commissioners’ decision to move the polling location on campus directly contradicts one of their most basic duties as public servants in a democracy: to serve the people. The commissioners are charged to serve Gallatin County as a whole, not just those who elected them into office. They can’t serve a population of voters if said voters can’t vote and have their opinions heard in an election.

Kiah Abbey, Bozeman director of Forward Montana, graciously took the time to provide the Exponent with further affirmation, other than voter safety, that the MSU campus better serves Gallatin County as a polling location than Hope Lutheran Church. She pointed to MSU as a central landmark in Southwest Bozeman; the accessibility of campus by foot, bike, bus and private vehicle;the important role polling locations play in minimizing confusion surrounding elections; the dense population of voting age adults on campus; and finally, that over a third of the voters served by Hope Lutheran Church are between 18 and 30 years old (the same age demographic served by MSU). Other than funding, Hope Lutheran Church is neither more convenient nor more accessible than MSU.

A recent editorial by the Bozeman Daily Chronicle stated that “commissioners are getting an earful from liberal activists who accuse them of suppressing the Montana State University student vote.” As a Republican student, I find that petty accusations that the Republican commissioners chose to move polling locations off campus because young people tend to vote in favor of the Democratic Party, trivializes the issue at hand. This issue goes far beyond partisan politics. The opportunity to vote is a fundamental right guaranteed to citizens of the United States and MSU students represent an important demographic of people. Historically, one of the first and most crucial ways a group of people are oppressed is to limit their ability to vote. It would be an exaggeration to say young people are being oppressed as a population in Bozeman, but it’s clear that they aren’t being valued on an appropriate scale.

Perhaps the commissioners were influenced by their personal political views, but they were also likely influenced by a recent shift to absentee ballots through the mail, the budget (as they’ve said), and a busy location at MSU that involves more coordinating and paperwork than Hope Lutheran Church. None of these justify the commissioner’s’ decision, however. Accessible voting for MSU students transcends these issues.

Forward Montana, ASMSU, the League of Women Voters, Montana Conservation Voters and Disability Rights Montana met with the Gallatin County Commission and Gallatin County Clerk and Recorder this past June to communicate their concerns with the change of polling location. On Oct. 6 2015, Gallatin County Commissioners expressed their support to move two additional precincts to Hope Lutheran Church for the upcoming elections in 2016 due to fairgrounds renovations.

At some point, sacrificing pride for the betterment of the population is necessary to effectively lead. Leadership at MSU and elected leadership in the greater Gallatin Valley need to step up for young people and encourage them to be involved their local government, which is certainly not what they’ve done in moving the polling location to Hope Lutheran Church. The commissioners made the wrong decision, and it’s time for them to either move the polling locations back to MSU or provide a way for students to easily access Hope Lutheran Church.

A central tenant of the American Dream is that the U.S. continues to improve for future generations. I want my generation to understand that they each play a crucial role in their government; however, the Gallatin County Commissioners have created an environment that hinders this goal. The message that the county commissioners send with this decision is clear: young people’s voices aren’t important enough to warrant reversing their decision.
As elected public servants, their main priority should be the constituents that they represent. That constituency includes MSU students, and the commissioners essentially axed a great majority of them from the voting populace when they moved the polling location somewhere that can hardly be considered accessible. With a few weeks until the elections, it’s clear that the people have spoken. Polling locations need to be moved, and the MSU administration and Gallatin County Commissioners need to rise to the occasion and make the necessary changes.