With observers watching Wisconsin as a critical state in the 2020 presidential election, University of Wisconsin-Madison student organizations are working to get their peers to the polls using podcasts, Zoom meetings and other innovative approaches.
“Students are cognizant of the fact that this is their future that they’re voting on,” said third-year student Shreya Bandyopadhyay, a host of Pod-Cast Your Vote. She said students know what’s at stake this election cycle and are eager to get involved and do what they can to get out the vote.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, UW-Madison students are feeling the effects of voter suppression more dramatically. Switches between in-person and online classes have threatened the plans of student residency in Dane County, especially for out-of-state students looking to vote in Madison. Dorm quarantines and campus shutdowns have raised fears among student organizations about the amount of in-person voter registration available on campus and the available resources to help UW-Madison students navigate voter ID requirements.
Getting out the vote, virtually
Posting new episodes weekly, Bandyopadhyay and co-host Tamia Fowlkes, a UW-Madison junior, aim to share all the information that students need to successfully cast their ballots for the Nov. 3 election. One of their goals, they said, is to fight the lack of voting information, specifically for students who are from out-of-state.
Featuring episode titles like “The Power of the Youth Vote” and “Voter Suppression & the 26th Amendment,” Pod-Cast Your Vote wants students to make their voices heard by providing them with all of the necessary information, like where to vote on campus, how to request an absentee ballot, what documents they need to register to vote and more.
The podcast is just one face of the BadgersVote Coalition, a campus-wide effort of the Morgridge Center for Public Service to “provide the University of Wisconsin–Madison students with everything they need to know in order to participate in their elections,” according to its website.
In addition to familiar groups like the College Democrats and College Republicans, campus and national organizations like the Sunrise Movement, NextGen America, Badgers for Biden, the Young Americans for Freedom and the Youth Climate Action Team have phone banks, text banks and voter networking events to get students registered to vote.
The message they are spreading to anyone who will listen: “Are you registered? Have you requested your absentee ballot? Do you have a plan to vote?”
Organizing for an election with the age demographic that historically sits out is a challenge. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, among 18-29 year olds from 2014 to 2018, the voter turnout rate jumped from 20% to 36%, but Badgers are trying to make that number even higher in 2020.
Student groups are finding success in reaching college-age youth via social media. Instagram and Snapchat stories have become popular ways of sharing information, and groups use social media posts to recruit volunteers for get-out-the-vote events.
Paige Leiser, president of Badgers for Biden, and Keeley Collins, communications vice president of the College Republicans, have found other ways to provide voting information to UW-Madison students during the pandemic.
“Something that I worked on was to create a Google form that people could fill out (to submit questions about voting), if they were having problems with ordering their absentee ballot, if they were having problems with registration,” Leiser said.
Leiser also said Badgers for Biden meets with the Young Progressives and College Democrats virtually. They have arranged Zoom meetings for debate nights as well as sessions for calling and texting voters to check on their registration status.
“We all meet in a Zoom room and go through the questions together, just because you sometimes can get some off-the-wall questions that are really hard to answer if you haven't done phone banking before,” Leiser said. “It's another way that it makes it a lot easier for even first-timers to get involved.”
College Republicans have also found virtual ways to promote the vote to their conservative constituency. They hold virtual “Make America Great Again” meetings every Tuesday and host Zoom parties to watch the debates.
“If you're doing door knocking, it takes more time out of your day, and you have to leave your house physically, which is obviously a concern right now with COVID-19. So we really just have been using virtual campaigning. Then relying on social media,” Collins said. “Just trying to use as many virtual things as possible.”
Although Collins doesn’t feel that there are strict voting laws in Wisconsin, College Republicans also have promoted information on how to request mail-in or absentee ballots.
“It's actually pretty easy to get your hands on absentee ballots. And then just encouraging people to send them in before Election Day,” Collins said. “Whenever we're campaigning, hey, like there's this deadline” for getting your ballot in on time.
For voters looking to submit their absentee ballot, dropping them in the mail is not advised this close to the election. Instead, absentee voters should drop their ballot in a marked ballot dropbox or at the city clerk’s office or at an in-person polling location.
Who’s voting and why?
According to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, about 75.5% of eligible voters in Dane County voted in the 2016 general election as opposed to 79.31% in 2012. As of the first day of October, 318,394 people between the ages of 18-24 have registered to vote in the state of Wisconsin out of 3.6 million, or about 9%, of registered voters in Wisconsin. As of Oct. 21, 4,838 voters from student-heavy voting wards on the isthmus have returned their ballots out of the 6,871 ballots sent out.
But is the lack of voting from UW students from voter suppression or an unwillingness to vote?
Ryan Cody, from Badgers for Biden, considering the effects of voter ID laws on campus, said, “when you look at it, only 50 percent of UW students voted (in 2016). I don't think there's that much apathy that half of the people don't want to vote.”
Up against strict voter ID laws that have been found to discourage voters, according to a UW study done in 2017, out-of-state students in Wisconsin face an uphill challenge in registering to vote and casting their ballot. According to Fowlkes, voter ID is the most confusing aspect of the process for students trying to get registered.
Voter ID laws got more confusing after the voter identification bill signed by former Gov. Scott Walker created the requirement for valid forms of photo identification at the polls in 2011.
According to the WEC, valid photo ID can come in the form of:
A valid Wisconsin driver’s license, Wisconsin state ID, U.S. passport, U.S. Uniformed Services card, Veterans Affairs ID, tribal ID or Certificate of Naturalization.
A university-issued Wiscard ID does NOT count as a valid form of ID.
Students without one of these forms can get an electronic UW-Madison Voter ID at voterid.wisc.edu that must also be presented with proof of enrollment.
In order to register at the polls, voters must also provide proof of residence in the form of a bill, copy of a lease or official memoranda.
Students are now grappling with the added hassle of getting a university voter ID during a global pandemic. According to political science professor Kathy Cramer, one of the chairs of the BadgersVote Coalition, the office has started to offer electronic versions of the student voter ID for ease of access for students.
Izzy Reilly, a senior majoring in political science, said she had issues voting by mail in her hometown of Waukesha from Madison.
“I personally had a little bit of struggle getting my absentee ballot,” she said. “I know who to contact because I am pretty connected to local politics, but I worry for other people who maybe don't know who the right person to contact is. If they have problems like that, are they able to still vote?”
While speaking about the importance of getting other students to vote, Bandyopadhyay shared a final thought about her experience voting on campus: “It felt so good to put my ballot in the drop-box. I hope every student is motivated to do the same.”
The Cap Times partnered with a UW-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication class focused on in-depth reporting to cover issues that the public showed interest in through the Cap Times People’s Agenda. One of these issues was the topic of fair elections. As out-of-state students, Adam Wigger and Norma Behrend-Martinez have experienced firsthand the issues of registering to vote on campus.
Along with the people that are quoted in this story, Wigger and Behrend-Martinez also got information from Katherine Morgan, a representative of the Young Progressives. The quotes from Ryan Cody and Izzy Reilly are taken from a conversation about fair elections that was hosted by the Local Voices Network and co-facilitated by Behrend-Martinez.
In order to gain a balanced view of campus politics and organizing, the student journalists interviewed the Young Progressives and the College Democrats for the traditionally liberal point of view, and talked with the College Republicans for the traditionally conservative view. They also reached out to the Young Americans for Freedom, but the group declined to participate.
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