Despite high hopes and record turnout across Madison and Dane County, votes cast in neighborhoods traditionally dominated by University of Wisconsin students plummeted in comparison to prior elections.
Madison residents living in 12 wards with high concentrations of UW-Madison students cast 13,759 ballots at their local polling places, a 31 percent decrease in votes cast in those same districts during the 2016 presidential election. Votes from the five wards that encompass the university’s residence halls and Eagle Heights graduate student neighborhood totaled 2,526 — less than half of the 5,692 from four years ago.
That drop, attributable in part to the coronavirus pandemic and possibly to students voting absentee in other areas rather than locally, is an unexpected result after organizers and university officials alike encouraged the student vote. It also contrasts with record turnout numbers from Madison and Dane County as a whole.
In Dane County overall, 387,274 residents registered to vote, with 345,604 total ballots cast, totaling to an 89.2 percent voter turnout among registered voters, according to unofficial county data.
Just over 75 percent of Dane County presidential votes went to Democratic candidate Joe Biden. Dane County voters likely helped flip Wisconsin blue, as Biden narrowly beat out President Donald Trump for the state’s 10 electoral votes.
Going into the election, Dane County Board of Supervisors District 5 Supervisor Elena Haasl, a UW-Madison student, was optimistic about the potential youth turnout.
“A lot of students who could not vote in the 2016 election are now eligible to vote and that is huge,” Haasl told The Daily Cardinal on Tuesday. “Young people will be turning up like never before to voice their vote and have a say in the outcome this time.”
Associated Students of Madison Chair Matthew Mitnick shared similar hopes for UW-Madison students’ civic engagement.
“Students have been voting early, sending any ballots by mail and are super excited!” Mitnick said Tuesday night. “There is an accountability held toward voting that I have not seen before.”
Despite that enthusiasm and early turnout, ballots cast in wards 46 through 50 and 54 through 60, where student-housing dominates, turnout was 31 percent below 2016 levels and 15 percent lower than in the 2018 midterms.
Turnout among dorm residents was down 56 percent compared to 2016 levels. Residence halls on campus are at just 69 percent capacity amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the university says. But that factor alone would account for only a fraction of the total drop in wards 54, 56, 58 and 59 where the dorms are located.
Other student voters — though it is unclear how many — opted to vote in their hometowns rather than in Madison. UW sophomore Olivia Coffey is one of them.
“I voted in my hometown of Pewaukee, in Waukesha County, because when I voted in the primaries I was home for the summer,” Coffey said. “I could have changed my residence to Madison, but I felt like I would have more of an impact voting blue in my hometown because it always goes red.”
The results of Wisconsin’s votes may be disputed, as representatives for President Trump said Wednesday he plans to call for a recount. Unofficial results show Biden with a 20,000-vote lead over President Trump.
“No matter the outcome, we won’t stay silent or complicit,” Haasl said. “Electing Donald Trump out of office will not solve our problems and we have a lot of work ahead of us to address and reconstruct our system that upholds the structural inequities that plague our community.”
Gina Musso is a Senior Staff Writer at The Daily Cardinal. She previously served as College News Editor and Features Editor, focusing coverage around student government, campus COVID updates and in-depth reporting. Follow her on Twitter @gina__musso.