Officials at the University of Wisconsin-Madison say a recent study of voting on college campuses in the 2016 presidential election shows that efforts to help students navigate the new state Voter ID law were successful.
But a student activist argued subsequent changes in the laws governing voter registration will make it harder for students to vote in the future.
Here’s what the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement, from the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University in Massachusetts found:
Voter turnout at UW-Madison dropped by 4.3 percent in 2016 compared to 2012. That compares to a 3 percent increase in voter turnout on campuses across the country.
Yet, more students at UW-Madison who were registered to vote actually voted in 2016 than in 2012. That number rose 1.3 percent, to 75.1 percent of registered student voters from 73.8 percent of registered student voters.
But the pool of registered student voters on campus dropped 7 percent from 2012 to 2016. So the number of students who went to the polls was down.
UW-Madison spokeswoman Meredith McGlone said the uptick in voting among registered student voters shows that “the university's provision of the free voting-compliant ID card, combined with a robust voter education campaign, enabled students to successfully exercise their right to vote."
Under the Voter ID law that went into effect in 2016, Wisconsin drivers licenses and ID cards could be used, but student IDs were valid to vote only if they had a two-year expiration date.
UW-Madison officials were criticized for their decision not to change the Wiscard student identification card to one that met the requirements of the Voter ID law.
Students lobbied campus administration, and the city of Madison and Dane County government passed resolutions supporting a campus student ID that would allow students to vote.
Campus officials said that it would be too expensive to replace the Wiscard every two years to meet Voter ID law requirements. The cost was estimated at $2 million over the first five years and $375,000 to $600,000 per year after that.
The university offered instead a separate ID card to use just for voting, available free on request. A total of 7,345 of those cards were issued, McGlone said. “We also set up stations at several campus polling places where cards could be printed on the spot,” she said.
Officials this fall issued Wiscard student IDs to new freshman that they won’t be able to use to vote and continues to offer the free ID card for voting.
UW-Madison student Billy Welsh, who coordinated voter registration efforts on campus for Associated Students of Madison for the 2016 election cycle, recalled that confusion over the state Voter ID law — which was challenged in court before it went into effect — was a hurdle.
“There was much confusion over what ID [students] needed to have,” to register or vote, he said.
As the divisive presidential campaign took shape, students showed a general lack of enthusiasm about the election, Welsh said.
Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at UW-Madison, said that the presidential candidates’ failure to show up in the state and generate excitement over the election, along with the requirements of the Voter ID law, resulted in the drop in voter turnout on state college campuses.
Welsh said he is concerned that a state law that went into effect since the 2016 election that does away with “special registration deputies” will mean fewer students on campus go to the polls. The special deputies signed up voters at registration drives and events on campus and elsewhere.
Voters now may register ahead of voting only in-person at a city clerk’s office, by mail or online. They also can register in person at the polls on election day.
Online registration may be done only using the numbers on state drivers licenses or IDs. So the options for nonresident students at UW-Madison is by mail or in person.
It’s just “common sense” to say students will be discouraged from registering, Welsh said. Students rarely us the postal service and would need to travel off campus to register in person at the clerk’s office, he said. “It’ll mean a lot more hurdles for out-of-state student who already have difficulty voting in Wisconsin.”
Student ID cards do not typically have addresses on them, so cannot be used alone to provide the proof of residence required for voter registration, Burden said.
If students do complete a paper registration form to mail in, they can use a Wiscard along with a “dorm list” provided by the university to establish residency and register, Burden said.
They also can provide a recent statement showing that their fees have been paid, along with the student ID, Burden said.