A Voter ID law and presidential candidates’ failure to show up in the state contributed to a surprising drop in voter turnout among Wisconsin college students, said Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at UW-Madison.
“There was a very significant requirement under the ID law, which could be perceived as a burden by students. And since they were not being ‘pushed’ by the campaigns to vote, it’s likely those things interacted to bring down turnout,” said Burden, a political science professor.
While about 3 percent more college students across the country went to the polls in November 2016 than in 2012, Wisconsin joined Georgia and Mississippi in posting the deepest drops in voter turnout at colleges and universities, according to a recently released National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement, a project of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University in Massachusetts.
The study looked at “deidentified” data from more than 9.5 million students at 1,023 higher education institutions across all 50 states that opted to join in.
Student voter turnout at Wisconsin colleges and universities was down 3 percent in 2016 and voter registration was down 8 percent.
At UW-Madison, voter turnout dropped by 4.3 percent in 2016, with 48.8 percent of students voting, compared to 53.1 percent in 2012, according to the study. The UW-Madison campus rate of voting was 1.6 percent below the rate of 50.4 percent at higher education institutions nationally. The campus had voted at a rate 6.2 percent above the national rate in 2012.
More students at UW-Madison who were registered to vote actually voted in 2016 than in 2012 — 75.1 percent compared to 73.8 percent. But the percentage of eligible students registered to vote in 2016 dropped sharply — by 7 percent — from 2012.
It’s hard to say how much the Voter ID law, which required a picture ID with current address to register and vote, had on turnout, said Burden, a political science professor
Student IDs issued by the university did not meet the specifications for a Voter ID card under the newly imposed state law. That meant students had to make a special trip to a campus office to get a second free ID to vote with if they did not have other identification that met the criteria for Voter ID.
Students, who move often and may not have drivers licenses, are among the demographic groups whose access to the ballot is most affected by Voter ID laws.
“It’s clear offering a second ID was a hassle,” Burden said.
The potential of Voter ID requirements to block voter access to the polls was a big concern on campus before the April primary. And there were lines at campus polling places for the primary elections as the new requirement was enforced, Burden said. But such problems were not apparent in November, he said.
“I don’t know if Voter ID kept students from trying to vote. But registration was down. It’s hard to know what to make of that,” Burden said.
A separate survey of a broader group of registered voters in Dane and Milwaukee counties who did not vote in the 2016 presidential election found that 11.2 percent of them were deterred by the state Voter ID law.
The survey by the UW-Madison Department of Political Science, released Monday, found that low-income and minority citizens eligible to vote were disproportionately deterred from voting by the ID requirement. Some 21.1 percent of low-income registrants surveyed were deterred by the ID requirement, compared to 7.2 percent of those with higher incomes; and 27.5 percent of African-American registrants reported being deterred by ID requirement, compared to 8.3 percent of white registrants.
“The main conclusion of the study is that thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands, of otherwise eligible people were deterred from voting by the ID law,” said Kenneth B. Mayer, the political science professor who conducted the study.
Burden noted that the 2016 presidential candidates from both of the major political parties failed to engage in old-fashioned campaign fieldwork in Wisconsin.
Some 30,000 people crowded Bascom Hill for an appearance by President Barack Obama in October, 2012, while in 2016 Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton did not visit the state after April, he said.
Those kinds of events do have an effect, Burden said. “Especially on a college campus, which is a contained environment and a social space,” he said.
Republican candidate Mitt Romney also had a larger campaign presence in the state in 2012 than did Donald Trump in 2016, Burden said. And to the extent that college students tend to be “digital citizens,” the 2012 campaigns had a larger digital presence than those of 2016 as well, he said.
In addition, some students who were enthusiastic about Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid may have lost interest after he lost in the primaries to Clinton, Burden speculated.
At 7.5 percent, the drop in voting at UW-Madison was steepest among traditional students, ages 18-21. Voting by first-year students inched up a fraction in 2016, but dropped by 5.7 percent among second-year students and 9.1 percent among upper-class students.
UW-Madison officials announced last week that they had signed up for the Big Ten Voter Challenge, which will work to improve registration and turnout at the 14 member universities.
After the 2018 election, trophies will go to two universities — the one with the highest eligible voter turnout and the one with the most improved turnout.
Morgridge Center for Public Service will lead the UW-Madison efforts. “Badger pride is alive and well in the realm of student engagement, and we are proud to help foster that strong tradition at UW–Madison,” Kathy Cramer, faculty director at the Morgridge Center, said in a news release on the competition.
Burden said the initiative could be effective, depending on what organizers on campus do. “It has to be more than words.”
Students have good reason to vote in 2018, even though it will not be a presidential election, he said. Voters will select a governor and state legislators, who influence student life through state budgets and policies.
And the state will select a U.S. senator as well. “There’s a lot at stake,” Burden said.