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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Voter Voices: Election coverage driven by you

A collage of photos showing Montanans interviewed to hear what they care most about this election. The collage is on a background of a Montana map. The logos for Montana Public Radio and America Amplified appear at the bottom.
Voter Voices: Election coverage driven by you

In early March, Montana Public Radio reporter Shaylee Ragar and community engagement specialist Katy Wade went on a five day, 900 mile road trip with a goal to start our 2024 election year coverage by hearing from Montanans.

This is a four-part series focused on Montanans and what matters to them. Our purpose is to ground our election coverage in the issues that are important to the people of the state.

Before diving into all of the details, Shaylee joined MTPR News Director Corin Cates-Carney to pull back the curtain and talk through the project.

Scroll through to listen to each segment individually.

Part I: The Road Trip

Voter Voices Part I: The Road Trip

CORIN CATES-CARNEY: Shaylee, we’re excited to hear more.

SHAYLEE RAGAR: Hey there! I’m excited to share what I heard and learned.

CATES-CARNEY: Tell us about the origin of this project.

RAGAR: MTPR has been working with an organization called America Amplified. It’s an initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting with the goal of helping stations like us put people, not preconceived ideas, at the center of the reporting process. Over the past couple of years, they've been helping us brainstorm ways to make sure we’re reflecting our community back to our listeners in our work.

With that mission in mind, I started thinking about how to cover the election, and how in years past, I’ve really focused on candidates. Candidates always have their own talking points they want to focus on. But I realized that campaign rhetoric doesn’t always match what’s happening on the ground. So I decided this time around to start with Montanans and work backwards.

CATES-CARNEY: What did that look like?

RAGAR: I began by mapping out where I wanted to go, and oof, that was tough. Montana has so much to offer community to community. I wanted to visit rural towns and urban cities, and some counties with below-average voter turnout so I could get out of what I see as a political echo chamber. And of course, in our state, that mean a lot of time in the car.

I ended up on a loop starting in Great Falls, up to Chester with an overnight in Lewistown, stopped in Box Elder, stopped in Billings and Crow Agency and then returned to Helena.

On the road between Chester and Box Elder, MT.
Shaylee Ragar
On the road between Chester and Box Elder, MT.

CATES-CARNEY: Ok, so a good variety there. How did you find people to talk to?

RAGAR: That’s a great question, I’m happy to talk through the reporting process. For this trip, I wanted to talk with people who are just going about their everyday lives, people we don’t hear from often because they’re not as engaged as, say, people who show up to the Legislature to testify.

So all of the voices you hear in this series were just people I bumped into.

I went to sandwich shops, cafes, a children’s museum, gas stations, a casino, college campuses and main streets and introduced myself to strangers, asking if they wanted to talk. There was no prep in advance, I don’t coach people through answers – these are all genuine conversations.

I want to be clear – that approach comes with a lot of rejection that I totally respect, not everyone wants to talk to me.

The people who did take the time out of their day to share their thoughts were really generous and friendly.

CATES-CARNEY: What do those conversations look like?

RAGAR: I always start with a pretty general introduction between me, Katy and whomever we met along the way.

And then I let the other person lead the conversation. Some we talked to for 15-20 minutes, other people spent a couple of hours with us, it really varied.

CATES-CARNEY: Were there any themes in these conversations?

RAGAR: Yeah there are a lot of similarities. Those ranged from economic concerns, like being able to afford housing, to social concerns, like the state of our public schools, to a general apathy towards politics – people feeling unheard by their elected officials.

Kelcey Backbone speaks with Montana Public Radio reporter Shaylee Ragar in Crow Agency
Katy Wade
Kelcey Backbone speaks with Montana Public Radio reporter Shaylee Ragar in Crow Agency

Like Kelcey Backbone, a 19-year-old from Crow Agency.

“I think a lot of things will just stay the same, you know, same soup just reheated,” Backbone said.

We’ll dive way deeper into those subjects throughout this series, but I want to note that something we heard a ton about was just a general love and appreciation for Montana. We’d talk about challenges, of course, and I won’t minimize those. But for all the negativity that is amplified in campaigns ads, stump speeches, news reports, there are also a lot of people who are happy with their lives in Montana.

For example, Jeff Lauver in Great Falls has some ideas for improvement, but overall, he’s happy here.

“I know how blessed we are to live where we live. I don’t know that I’d change anything, honestly,” Lauver said.

CATES-CARNEY: Well, we’re looking forward to hearing more. Thanks.

RAGAR: Thanks.

Part II: Economic Concerns

Voter Voices Part II: Economic Concerns

Many Montanans are thinking about the cost of living this election year. People across the state of all backgrounds are concerned about the state’s changing economy and how to make ends meet.

At Grinder's sub shop downtown Great Falls on a recent Monday afternoon, it was the lunch rush. People were coming from the oil refinery, others from the local hospital.

Jeff Lauver, a 48-year-old pastor at a local Nazarene church, met his wife for lunch. He’s a lifelong Great Falls resident.

When I asked him what he sees as a top issue in Montana, he pointed to a problem he says members of his congregation are having–

“I would probably say cost of living versus what’s available salary-wise, like job wise,” Lauver said.

Lauver said available wages make it hard to pay for things like housing, groceries and health care, which have all been affected by inflation. The state labor department reports prices have increased on average by 3.5% over the last year, down from 9% inflation in 2022.

“I don’t think people necessarily think that their work is worth more, it’s just that the rate of the cost of living is going up faster than what you can do,” Lauver said.

Wages in Montana have increased in recent years at one of the fastest rates in the nation, but housing especially remains affordable for many. State data shows the Montana’s median home value is over four times higher than the state’s median income

Seventeen-year-old Shawn Felix was having lunch with his mom at the sub shop. He dropped out of high school last year to start earning money.

“I had to work too much, I had to provide for my family, because we were going through a hard situation so I had to work for them. And for me, as well.”

Felix was able to take the High School Equivalency Test and get a diploma while working full-time. He says he helps his family with the rising costs of daycare for his younger brother and rent. Felix wants to get more education, he mentions welding or veterinary school. He says his goal for the future is “just maybe to work and live my life and get an apartment or something.”

I met another young person, Everett Radakovich, downtown Billings. The 19-year-old was visiting his parents while on spring break from Montana State University. He has the same anxiety about the cost of living. He says he’d like to stay in Montana after he graduates, but isn’t sure that’s possible.

MSU student Everett Radakovich in downtown Billings, MT.
Shaylee Ragar
MSU student Everett Radakovich in downtown Billings, MT.

“I originally wanted to find a place somewhere else in Billings or just Bozeman, but then everything that’s being built there is really expensive housing and all the existing stuff is rising in price,” Radakovich said.

Radakovich is majoring in filmmaking and knows opportunities will be limited in Montana, even with the Yellowstone show bringing new business here. The Montana Legislature last session declined to expand a tax credit for the film industry.

“There is opportunities for jobs for us, but they’re hard to find and there’s not a lot of them. So I feel like a lot of us will have to transfer to a bigger state, to a much different environment, and lose what I love about Montana – the scenery, sense of community,” Radakovich said.

Montana’s economy and demographics are fast-changing. A state that was once built on natural resource extraction and agriculture now sees the financial, tourism and health care sectors as its top industries, according to the 2023 Montana Labor Day Report.

Coal country has felt that shift acutely, where mines were once a strong source of good paying jobs and revenue. But as the coal industry declines, so do its economic benefits.

Shawn Backbone, who’s 58, was born and raised in Crow Agency. He’s now the economic development director for the Crow Tribe. He’s looking for new ways to generate revenue.

“We’re a coal tribe. Crows, we’ve been a coal tribe since the '70s, now we can’t unearth 9 billion tons of coal. So we’re not a casino tribe either. So our golden egg could be tourists,” Backbone said.

I caught Backbone just before he had to head to a meeting at the Little Bighorn Battlefield, a site just south of town that commemorates one of the last armed efforts against colonization. It’s one of the things that attracts tourists to the area, and Backbone is considering ways to build on that economic opportunity.

Shawn Backbone, economic development director for Crow Tribe, at his office in Crow Agency, MT.
Katy Wade
Shawn Backbone, economic development director for Crow Tribe, at his office in Crow Agency, MT.

However, he says there’s no way of guaranteeing consistency in tourist revenue.

“But things revolve and change, so I guess we’re kind of surviving,” Backbone said.

The agriculture sector is in the same boat.

Chester is a rural incorporated town in Liberty County of about 870 people along the hi-line. There are ranches in the area that began as homesteads as early as in the 1860s, when the federal government passed the Homestead Act to encourage settlers to move West.

I met 81-year-old Ted Powell from neighboring Chinook in Spuds Cafe in Chester.

The rancher says he doesn’t recognize what his livelihood has become.

“Well there are way too many rules and regulations. If my dad was in there, he’d turn over if he had to do all of this stuff. And they’re not making it any easier, but they like to eat,” Powell said.

 Ted Powell, a Chinook-area rancher, in Spuds Cafe in Chester, MT.
Katy Wade
Ted Powell, a Chinook-area rancher, in Spuds Cafe in Chester, MT.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports the number of farms and amount of land used for agriculture in Montana have been shrinking over the decades. In growing cities like Bozeman and Kalispell, it’s apparent some of that farmland is quickly being developed for a growing number of residents.

In fact, the state also has one of the fastest growing populations as reported in the latest U.S. Census, and the housing supply hasn’t kept up with demand.

Shirley Rudolph spent most of her life on a ranch north of Joplin. Now retired in Chester, Rudolph spoke over lunch at the Liberty County Senior Center about the housing issue she sees her kids facing, and blames out-of-staters.

“And they’ve got all this money, so they can come here and they can spend a lot of money on a house and pretty soon all of our taxes go up,” Rudolph said.

Property taxpayers saw skyrocketing bills last fall, with many seeing hikes at 20% or more. That increase has been attributed to several factors, with one being the rise in Montana property values and demand.

Jackie Fischer, a primary care nurse who I met at Grinders in Great Falls, shared a similar view to Rudolph’s. She says she sees the issue impacting people of all backgrounds.

“I just notice a lot of people moving in and my patients are losing their homes because whoever is moving in is offering more money and they are kicking people out. That’s what I see a lot of just at my job,” Fischer said.

While the Montanans heard in this piece all expressed concerns for their economic futures, they shared another common sentiment – they wanna stay in Montana.

Part III: Social Issues

Voter Voices Part III: Social Issues

Social issues, like the immigration policy, abortion and access to health care, can be some of the most polarizing in politics. For many Montanans, the issues are personal.

Chester is in north central Montana on the Hi-Line – or the long stretch of land running along the state’s northern border. It’s about 78 miles to the nearest border crossing into Canada.

On the Tuesday in March when I visited, the Liberty County Senior Center was serving turkey and mashed potatoes with gravy for lunch.

Judy Wickum, who’s 70 and originally from Chester, says it's the southern border that worries her. Specifically, she says the government should be doing more to stop migrants from crossing the U.S. border with Mexico illegally.

“And it’s sad, I mean some of them are probably legit people that really want to make a new life for themselves. But a lot of them I think are criminals and people who just want to cause trouble,” Wickum said.

The U.S. saw a record high number of arrests for illegal southern border crossings in December at 250,000, although border arrests have declined in the months since.

An investigation from the New York Times and the Marshall Project found no correlation between a rise in undocumented immigrants and crime.

NBC News reports that drug traffickers, often coming across legal ports of entry from Mexico, are targeting Montana’s Native American reservations and flooding them with fentanyl. They can sell the highly addictive drug at a much higher price on rural reservations than in oversaturated markets in big cities.

That’s a top concern for Laura Buffalo, a 23-year-old living in Box Elder on the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation.

“The fear of drugs getting the way, whether that’s you getting caught in them, or being surrounded by it. Because you never know, you have to keep an eye on your house, double lock it up, you have to be protective of your stuff,” Buffalo said.

Buffalo says she’s not sure where the drugs are coming from, and doesn’t want to know.

More than two hundred miles south, on the campus of Montana State University - Billings I met Aurora Cosgriffe, a soon-to-be social work grad student.

“Safe and legal abortions absolutely need to be available,” Cosgriffe said.

Cosgriffe, a mother of two teenagers, says watching other states ban abortion after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade makes her worry that could happen in Montana.

Aurora Cosgriffe is a social work grad student at Montana State University - Billings.
Katy Wade
Aurora Cosgriffe is a social work grad student at Montana State University - Billings.

“Women are concerned about getting arrested for having a miscarriage, I mean, that’s happening. This is America in 2024 and we don’t have bodily autonomy,” Cosgriffe said.

More than half of all states have adopted abortion restrictions, according to the Guttmacher Institute. More than a dozen have some sort of abortion ban in place.

Montana Republican lawmakers have successfully passed several laws that would restrict access to abortion, but all are tied up in court, or were struck down by the state’s supreme court.

On another college campus in Billings – Rocky Mountain College – a student voiced concerns about other legislation championed by Republican lawmakers at the state Legislature.

“People misunderstand trans people a lot. Especially in this state.”

Anna Mattie was born and raised in Billings. She says laws targeting transgender people, like a ban on drag shows in public places, are rooted in bigotry.

 Anna Mattie is an English and philosophy student at Rocky College and is originally from Billings, MT.
Anna Mattie is an English and philosophy student at Rocky College and is originally from Billings, MT.

“We’ve seen detrimental bans against drag that also affect trans people, of course. And that is really tragic. I know so many trans people and love so many trans people, who are at the end of the day, people. And the way that I see them demonized in this state is really frustrating,” Mattie said.

Social issues like immigration and abortion can be among the most polarizing.

But there’s broader agreement on issues about access to health care in rural areas.

Albert Gros-Ventre is a community organizer, actor and rancher in Crow Agency. He’s traveled all over the world but says he’ll never live outside of his ancestral homelands.

“Me just being a country bumpkin, I wouldn’t give where I live now up for anything.”

However, Gros-Ventre says the region lacks emergency services.

“If a house is burning 20 miles outside of Wyola somewhere, it’s going to take emergency services an hour and half to get to wherever that emergency is summoned,” Gros-Ventre said.

Gros-Ventre said that can make the difference between life and death.

Albert Gros-Ventre, rancher, community organizer and actor, in his office in Crow Agency, MT.
Katy Wade
Albert Gros-Ventre, rancher, community organizer and actor, in his office in Crow Agency, MT.

“You know, whether it’s ambulance or health related, or fire of some kind, or a kid falls in some kind of drain – or whatever it might be – all of the different communities that we have in Crow, we just don’t have the resources to have that service in that immediate area,” Gros-Ventre said.

Basic health care needs are sometimes not met, either. Dawn Blatt is a school bus driver in Box Elder. She says she’s struggled getting what she needs from the federal Indian Health Service.

“Like I’m dealing with that right now with my mom and her waiting for a referral to get out to see a neurologist because she’s a got a tumor growing in her head,” Blatt said.

Blatt says it can often feel like a slog to deal with IHS. But people in rural areas, including some reservations, don't have many options.

“It’s just like a game of hurry up and wait.”

Residents of Montana’s urban centers can expect shorter wait times, and more options, when it comes to health services.

Aimee Still is a mother of twin girls in Great Falls. She is grateful for the access her kids have to mental health services at school – and so are they. Her daughter Cadence said her favorite part of school is having access to CSCT, a program for individual mental health therapy in schools.

I met the family at the children’s museum in Great Falls. Students were on break and so was Still, a first grade teacher at a local elementary school. She says the only reason her kids get to use the mental health program is because the family qualifies for Medicaid coverage. But she doesn’t think it should be that way.

“I have a degree and I make $18 an hour. And I work more than 40 hours a week. We do not pay our teachers enough. I should not qualify for Medicaid as a teacher, you know,” Still said.

Montana pays its teachers at one of the lowest rates in the country. Salaries are based on how much local and state governments are willing to invest in public education.

Still says the low-pay has led to a teacher shortage at her school, meaning existing teachers have bigger class sizes, exacerbating burnout. She says schools aren’t able to offer extra-curricular programs or as much support to students as they used to.

“We are teaching the next generation. Every single job will be made because of a teacher,” Still said.

Still says plans to vote for candidates in this election who support investing more money in public education.

These were just a sample of the many people I met and talked with. It’s also just a sample of the many issues that determine how they’re going to vote this year.

Part IV: Distrust in Democracy

Voter Voices Part IV: Distrust in Democracy

Trust in government and candidates for office has been waning nationwide, and in Montana. For some it runs deeper than others.

At the Custer Battlefield Trading Post and Cafe in Crow Agency, three old friends meet nearly everyday for coffee. They talk about life, about the latest happenings in town and rib each other.

When I asked to talk with them, Sydney Fitzpatrick helped translate my request to chat to Ken Real Bird in Crow, as he’s hard of hearing.

Real Bird has lived on the Crow Reservation for most of his life, except for stints in art school in New York City and a residency in Santa Fe. But he eventually came home to run cattle and raise horses on his family’s ranch.

When I ask what issues are top of mind when he votes in state and federal elections, he says that’s not the right question.

“We’re saying we’re sovereign - why the hell do I want to bother with the state of Montana?”

Ken Real Bird, a rancher and artist, has also worked for the Crow Tribe in the past.
Katy Wade
Ken Real Bird, a rancher and artist, has also worked for the Crow Tribe in the past.

Real Bird says he always votes in tribal elections, and that it’s for the Tribe to tackle the problems facing their community, not an outside government. Fitzpatrick says even if they did want a partner to work with, doing so with the United States and Montana governments feels futile.

“If Trump comes in here, we don’t care. If Biden comes in here, we don’t care. Don’t matter. Because what do they do for us? Nothing. They just come to get a vote. That’s how I see it, OK? And they’ll get a vote and they’ll leave and they don’t turn back,” Fitzpatrick said.

Fitzpatrick says Tribes have no reason to believe officials will stick to their word after a history of broken treaties, violence and discrimination.

Generally, distrust of the government is growing. According to the Pew Research Center, public trust in the federal government “has returned to near record lows following a modest uptick in 2020 and 2021.”

For some people heard earlier in this series with concerns about the economy or social policy, that trust makes them question whether or not they want to vote.

James Cowhick was on his lunch break from his construction job when I met him at a sub shop in Great Falls. He has no interest in voting.

“It’s two sides of the same coin.”

Cowhick doesn’t trust that those running for public office want to make a meaningful difference in his life. He gives the example of the rising cost-of-living, saying the problem is impacting people everywhere even though politicians point fingers based on political affiliation.

“I don’t think there’s a single person in that position that’s willing to help. I think they’re all in it for the money. I don’t think they’re doing anything for the people. So I mean as far as the direction of everything goes, it’s all par for the course as far as they’re concerned, I believe,” Cowhick said.

Pew Research Center found in 2023 that 81% of Americans believe members of Congress do a poor job of keeping their work in office separate from their personal finances. About the same share of people believe campaign donors have undue influence in decisions members of Congress make.

Faith in government institutions has been on the decline for years. According to a poll from the Associated Press last year, more than half of all Americans have “hardly any confidence at all” in the people running for Congress.

Some find it hard to trust politicians because they don’t trust the information they get about them – whether that be through campaign ads or news interviews.

Rowan Thompson-Tschimperle, a freshman at Montana State University, says he’s not registered to vote, but plans to do so. He talked about lots of issues he cares about when I met him on a street corner in downtown Billings, but he finds it difficult to wade through information about candidates and politics.

“It is oftentimes just very difficult just finding the truth, I suppose, whenever you’re trying to look for any specific new source,” Thompson-Tschimperle said.

Rowan Thompson-Tschimperle, originally from Minnesota, is a freshman at Montana State University studying filmmaking.
Katy Wade
Rowan Thompson-Tschimperle, originally from Minnesota, is a freshman at Montana State University studying filmmaking.

Most counties in Montana do not have a daily newspaper and often are served by a single weekly.

Thompson-Tschimperle says he’s trying to take matters into his own hands to find good information. But that’s likely a lifelong journey.

“The world is a lot more complicated than I made it out to be,” Thompson-Tschimperle said.

Across town at Rocky Mountain College, I met Anna Mattie, whose voice was heard previously in this series. She’s studying English and philosophy and is politically engaged and up on the news. She wants to see change, but doesn’t feel excited to vote.

“I think the problem is that we’ve created a two party system in this country that is detrimental to all of us, frankly,” Mattie said. “Because your options are basically someone you hate and someone you hate. And frankly, that sucks.”

Distrust of candidates and political parties seems to be trickling down for some into everyday conversations with family and friends, too.

Connie Anderson and Lois Evans are sisters I met when I visited the Liberty County Senior Center. They’re from the area, love the neighborly feel of Chester and say they have a big enough family to fill out a full baseball team. But Anderson says the family differs when it comes to politics.

Sisters Connie Anderson (right) of Joplin, and Lois Evans (left) of Chester at the Liberty County Senior Center.
Katy Wade
Sisters Connie Anderson (right) of Joplin and Lois Evans (left) of Chester at the Liberty County Senior Center.

“Half of us are Democrats, half of us are Republicans. So it’s interesting.”

Just the mention of politics led to some tension at the table.

Evans says it didn’t used to be this way, but now she feels like she can’t broach controversial topics with family.

“But you used to be able to go there. You should be able to visit why you believe what you believe. It’s ‘silence, don’t speak to me.’ And that’s not a good thing.”

The sisters agree that this distrust is a problem, but don’t agree how to solve it.

Evans: “One thing I would change would be the civility – acceptance, willingness and respect to work together and find some kind of common ground. I don’t see that happening.

Anderson: “What would that look like though?”

Evans: “What would that look like? I don’t want to go there. What do you mean what would that look like? People would work together instead of constantly bashing the other person.”

Both sisters say they don’t see themselves budging on where they stand today. And they don’t see politicians budging either.

We're putting your voices at the center of our 2024 election coverage.

We want to hear from you, especially if you’re a first-time voter or if you have felt left out of the election process in the past. We want to help and will use our fact-based reporting to add depth and context to the 2024 campaigns.

You can send us your questions about the issues and candidates you want to know more about to or use the form below.


Shaylee covers state government and politics for Montana Public Radio. Please share tips, questions and concerns at 406-539-1677 or  
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