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This story is excerpted from the MT Lowdown, a weekly newsletter digest containing original reporting and analysis published every Friday.


Anticipation was reaching critical mass in Montana in the days ahead of Tuesday’s general election. Campaigns were working tirelessly on their 11th-hour pitches, outside groups were dropping oodles of cash on messaging in top-ticket races, and voters across the state were eager for answers to some of the biggest questions on the ballot. Who would Montana elect to its new U.S. House seats? Would the state Supreme Court see a shake-up? Would the electorate accept or reject the much-debated Born-Alive Infant Protection Act? (The answers, if you’ve been on a media fast since last week, are here.)

But before the polls even opened Nov. 8, public school students in Montana had offered a forecast of what was in store. Between Oct. 31 and Nov. 4, the Office of Public Instruction administered its annual Youth Vote event, asking K-12 students to vote in a mock election featuring the highest-profile items on the 2022 ticket. Superintendent Elsie Arntzen and Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen jointly announced the results Nov. 7. 

So how did they stack up against Tuesday’s unofficial statewide returns?

Montana’s Youth Vote in the western district’s congressional race was almost dead-on: 49.28% for Republican Ryan Zinke, compared to Zinke’s 49.7% statewide showing on Election Day. But from there, students forged a path all their own. Zinke’s Democratic opponent, Monica Tranel, netted just 28% of the K-12 vote, roughly half what she got in the actual election. Eastern district incumbent Matt Rosendale came up seven points shorter in the student vote than he did at the polls. And on the Supreme Court side, challengers James Brown and Bill D’Alton carried the vote among students grade 7 to 12 by double-digit margins. In reality, both lost their races, with incumbents Ingrid Gustafson and Jim Rice posting 54% and 78% victories, respectively.

The joint OPI/SOS endeavor also asked middle and high school students to cast their votes on Montana’s two 2022 ballot issues. A constitutional amendment protecting electronic data from unreasonable search and seizure passed the Youth Vote with 73% — roughly nine points shy of its actual success rate Nov. 8. But students and statewide voters went opposite directions on the Born-Alive Infant Protection Act. Last week 53% of voters rejected the referendum. The week prior, 62% of students participating in the Youth Vote event cast votes supporting it.

Turns out that while children may in fact be the future, they don’t always know what it holds.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...