On a warm, sun-splashed evening during final exams week, senior Matt Hochhauser knocks on doors on UW-Madison's fraternity row.
His mission: To get students who are preoccupied with studying and summer plans to think about an election that is just weeks away.
"It's very difficult because we have such a short amount of time to get people to vote," said the English and history major from Long Island, N.Y., who was canvassing Langdon Street for the Democratic Party on Monday night.
The timing of Wisconsin's historic gubernatorial recall election couldn't be worse for college students. Many will leave campus for the summer after exams end this week or graduation this weekend.
Experts say the June 5 election between Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Democratic challenger Tom Barrett could result in lower turnout for a population that already votes in small numbers.
"The barriers are huge," said Elizabeth Hollander, a senior fellow at Tufts University who studies student civic engagement. "Not to knock college students, but they have a lot of other things on their mind."
Making things more complicated for the transitory population are new voting rules that require voters to live in an election ward for at least 28 consecutive days.
People should vote at the residence where they lived on May 8, according to the Government Accountability Board. Students can file an absentee ballot if they are registered at that location but away for the summer.
But the scenarios get muddied quickly. A student who is already registered at his or her parents' house — and has not registered at a campus-area address — can vote in his or her hometown. A student who will be abroad must apply for a mailed absentee ballot (presuming the student has a mailing address). A student leaving the state for good after graduation this weekend shouldn't vote in the election; that would be illegal, a class I felony.
Voter registration by mail closed Wednesday, which means registration now can only be done in person at a clerk's office or the polls.
Turnout among voters under 24 years old in college was 26.5 percent nationally for the 2010 mid-term elections, compared to overall turnout of 45.5 percent, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning at Tufts.
"Because younger people already vote at lower levels compared to the rest of the population, when you create new barriers for that participation, it certainly makes it less likely that they go to the added trouble of obtaining an absentee ballot, filling it out and sending it back in," said Charles Franklin, a UW-Madison political science professor. "It's definitely likely to lower the aggregate student turnout."
Voter turnout in primarily student wards in Madison in the November 2010 gubernatorial election ranged from 37 to 66 percent. They all favored Barrett.
Officials have been scrambling to clarify rules for students. The GAB sent a memo Thursday to state universities and colleges outlining voting rules for students. UW-Madison Dean of Students Lori Berquam sent an email with information to students.
A law passed last year required that voters show a valid photo ID at the polls, but an injunction is currently barring that requirement.
"It's a bit confusing," said Jeff Snow, chairman of the UW-Madison College Republicans. "I'm even confused to be honest — what parts of voter ID law are still in effect and what parts are struck down?"
Snow said his group isn't doing wide outreach because of final exams, but he's sending emails and passing out printouts of the absentee application to a list of members.
On Monday night, Keith Mairura, a sophomore, answered the door to his Langdon area apartment when Hochhauser came knocking. Mairura, a pre-med student from Minnetonka, Minn., who is returning there for the summer, was studying for one last exam.
Hochhauser registered Mairura to vote, but when asked if he wanted an application to vote absentee for the June election, Mairura declined.
"I just don't know enough information to be participating," he said.