The student vote at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has the power to dictate the scope of politics on local, state and national levels. Student groups across campus are determined to promote student voter registration and turnout, but despite their efforts, some students remain unenthused and unconvinced.
In 2020, 72.8% of eligible students at UW-Madison cast their ballots in the presidential election, higher than the 66% of eligible college students nationally. In 2020, President Joe Biden won Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes by just over 20,000 votes. UW-Madison student voters surpassed this number, as 24,572 students cast their votes. Though surely not all students cast their ballots in Wisconsin, this number speaks to the power that the student vote at UW-Madison alone can have on elections nationally.
“Wisconsin is one of the biggest states to watch with student participation in elections because [students] really do have a big voice and they are a big determining factor,” said Shelby Fosco, Co-curricular Programs Specialist at the Morgridge Center.
In her position at UW-Madison, Fosco is the supervisor of BadgersVote, a non-partisan student organization focused on turning out the student vote on campus. The university-affiliated group seeks to drive student voter turnout by increasing visibility and accessibility around elections and voting.
“We're really trying to engage students at any entry point,” Fosco said.
BadgersVote has hosted events weekly but ramped up its programming as Nov. 8 approaches. The events include debate watch parties, mock elections where students can practice filling out a ballot at a polling place and voter registration events. The group also hosted daily events during National Voter Registration Week. BadgersVote’s ultimate goal is to give students the confidence to go to the polls and vote while promoting voter access and electoral education.
“I think feeling competence in the polling booth and knowing who and what you're voting for is something that students are unsure of for the midterm elections,” Fosco said. “When it comes to the presidential election, students know who they're voting for. They know what they're voting for, but not necessarily the same thing for the midterm election.”
This sentiment rings true for a UW-Madison senior who asked to remain anonymous. She has never voted and does not have plans to vote in the upcoming elections. In fact, the Wisconsin resident did not realize the election was approaching until a recent conversation with her roommates.
“I don't know either of the candidates, and I haven't researched it at all, so I don't think it's fair for me to go and vote,” she said.
The student explained that time constraints prevent her from taking the time to research candidates. She often disagrees with both parties, and should she take the time to cast her ballot, would ultimately not vote for “either candidate.”
Aside from voter education, another of BadgerVote’s ongoing initiatives is ensuring that students have access to proper voter identification. While the group does not encourage students to vote in one state over another, they focus on educating and empowering students to vote where they choose.
“You're here for four years,” Fosco said. “A lot of things happen in four years, that’s an entire presidential term. So really, it's up to students where they feel like their vote is most powerful.”
Voting in Wisconsin isn’t just about having sway in national politics. As students at a public university, many of the decisions made on local and state levels have an impact at UW-Madison. Issues that largely impact students, such as abortion access, will be decided by politicians running in the 2022 election.
“If we don’t win this race, it will change the face of the UW System, all of the campuses that we’re talking about,” said incumbent Gov. Tony Evers at an event with student supporters in Madison. “It certainly will be an issue around reproductive rights, you will not be seeing anyone working towards the legalization of marijuana, but most importantly, your lives as students going to a top-class, world-class university will change.”
In order to amplify the impact of BadgersVote and other organizations on campus, ASM hosted events such as Voterpalooza to teach students about the upcoming midterm elections.
At UW-Madison, the Panhellenic Association is also working to turn out the student vote in their community and has been working with third-party groups to achieve this goal. The organization's commitment to service translates directly to civic engagement and democratic participation, said PHA’s Vice President of Civic Engagement Abby Maechling.
“We have such a big community of smart, engaged members, [and] it's just a matter of getting our members to know that they can share their opinions by voting,” Maechling said.
PHA is unique in that it has outwardly encouraged students to register to vote in Wisconsin — specifically. Maechling explained that a large part of the Greek life community is made up of out-of-state students, who may come from states which lean heavily Democratic or Republican.
“We believe that it is critical that if you have the right to vote in a swing state, you should because your vote is more powerful there,” Maechling said.
Ultimately, BadgersVote and other on-campus organizations are hopeful about student interest and engagement as the midterm elections approach.
“Typically, midterm election turnout for young voters is a little bit lower,” Fosco said. “But we're hoping we can keep that turnout level high and get students to the polls on Nov. 8.”