As co-director of progressive voter outreach organization Project 72 WI, Teddy Landis goes the extra mile — and hundreds more after that — to energize student voters across Wisconsin. For just the 2023 spring elections, Landis estimates Project 72 WI knocked on 40,000 doors across 15 college campuses.
Getting young people to the polls is typically an “uphill battle” for Landis. But with the future of Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban and the potential to redistrict voting maps that currently lean towards Republicans at stake, that was not the case with the April 4 Wisconsin Supreme Court election.
“Young people know that when they vote, it absolutely matters,” Landis said. “People who are in college right now know how important the effect of their vote is.”
In every key University of Wisconsin System campus precinct with high student populations, student voters retained voter turnout better than overall voters, according to data from Project 72 WI. While statewide turnout in this month’s election was 69% of the turnout in the November 2022 elections, the campus precincts retained between 74% and 97% of voters from last fall.
And campuses turned out big for liberal candidate Janet Protasiewicz, who carried every Wisconsin county with a four-year UW campus. Statewide, Protasiewicz defeated her conservative opponent Dan Kelly by approximately 11 points, ushering in the court’s first liberal majority in 15 years.
For Landis, the surge in youth voters demonstrated the crucial role grassroots political organizations play in Wisconsin’s elections. Students have voted for Democratic candidates in near-record numbers in elections since 2018, according to data from the Wisconsin Elections Commission, despite facing voting barriers targeted directly at college students.
“The response to this spring Supreme Court election was unlike anything we've ever seen,” Landis said. “It's clear that something is in the water, and Wisconsin students were determined to vote no matter what.”
Finding new ways to court student voters
Voters of Tomorrow, NextGen America, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin and Grassroots Democrats HQ also led statewide campaigns encouraging youth voter turnout for Protasiewicz.
NextGen took a nontraditional approach to voter engagement. Kristi Johnston, the National Press Secretary for NextGen America, led a program with 20 nationwide volunteers who made dating profiles on Hinge to match with students and share voting resources. Johnston explained how nearly two dozen volunteers nationwide set their location to cities in Wisconsin and designed profiles to attract voters with lighthearted jokes, such as saying they were “crazy for pro-choice."
NextGen started the program in 2020 after seeing an increase in dating app usage, and the program was a hit, Johnston said.
“Our number one goal is to meet young people where they're at,” Johnston told The Daily Cardinal. “If millions of them across the country are on dating apps, we’re going to be there.”
Volunteers also made over 1.1 million calls and texts, and brought high-profile names like former Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and Wisconsin Secretary of State Sarah Goldlewski to the UW-Madison campus, Johnston said.
Jack Lobel, the National Press Secretary for the “Gen Z-run” Voters of Tomorrow, said young organizers ran hours of phone banking, building connections with Wisconsin officials to show both students and lawmakers the importance of the student vote.
“I'm sure you've heard young people don't vote, and that's not young people's fault. That's the fault of lawmakers who have not given us a seat at the table,” Lobel said.“I think [2023 is] an indication of how 2024 is going to go and how every election cycle is going to go with more Gen-Zers voting.”
Elected officials, including Godlewski, ran their own campaigns to turn out student voters. Godlewski helped with Women Win Wisconsin's informational campaign which prioritized student mobilization on the platform of access to reproductive rights, according to Godlewski.
“After Roe v. Wade was overturned, half our population lost their rights and have fewer rights than their mothers and grandmothers [did],” Godlewski said. “I think it really became clearer and easier to draw the line with young people that the Supreme Court has the ability to change this.”
UW-Madison, other campuses see high voter retention
On the UW-Madison campus, the Associated Students of Madison (ASM) hosted a series of candidate forums leading up to the election that used community input to formulate candidate questions. ASM also helped print student voter IDs and saw a “near-constant stream” of students getting their ID cards printed toward the end of election night, according to Sarah Nehls, ASM’s vote coordinator.
“What excited me the most was seeing students not only voting themselves but bringing their roommates or their friends to vote with them,” Nehls said. “In terms of turnout, the numbers from student wards are some of the largest we've ever seen in a spring election. It's historic, and I could not be prouder of our campus for showing up.”
UW-Madison students turned out for Protasiewicz in record numbers. Among wards containing university residence halls, 91.3% of voters cast ballots for Protasiewicz — 10% more than Dane County as a whole, according to voting data from the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
Madison wards containing UW residence halls also saw higher turnout retention from the 2022 gubernatorial election in the elections data, meaning students who voted last fall were more likely than Dane County as a whole to vote again for state Supreme Court.
Statewide, Protasiewicz outperformed Gov. Tony Evers in terms of vote share at every key four-year campus ward, as defined by voting data analysis from Project 72 WI.
“Abortion is predominantly a women's issue. Even more than that, it's predominantly a young women's issue,” Landis said. “I have no doubt, and I know, based on my conversations with hundreds of students, that abortion was a key factor in motivating folks to vote.”
Students in Ward 20 at UW-Eau Claire saw 91% of voters from last November’s elections show up for the April 4 state Supreme Court election, with long lines to match. Eau Claire County voted 64% for Protasiewicz — over six points greater than Evers’ margin in 2022.
Similar to UW-Madison, UW-Eau Claire was bustling with liberal organizing groups ahead of the April 4 election, according to Matthew Lehner, president of the UWEC College Democrats. Lehner said his group held tabling events throughout the year to inform students about upcoming elections and help them build voting plans.
“The fact that, our campus has caught the attention and admiration of the world for our record turnout, made me incredibly proud to know that our organization had a major role in making that a reality,” said Lehner.
Students refute cries of ‘liberal indoctrination’
Some Wisconsin politicians, mainly conservatives, worried increasing student voter turnout for liberal candidates was a product of campus culture.
In a string of tweets following the 2023 spring election, former Gov. Scott Walker blamed Kelly’s loss on “liberal indoctrination” and called on the Young America’s Foundation (YAF), an organization of which he is currently the president, to “counter the impact of radicals on campus.”
When asked about Walker’s tweets, UW-Madison’s Young Americans for Freedom did not respond to a request for comment.
Some young voters rebuked Walker’s tweets, stressing the importance and validity of the student vote.
Landis disagreed with Walker’s tweets and stressed the student vote is more important now than ever.
“The 1849 abortion ban is not a hypothetical for students. It's something that they and their friends are having to deal with,” Landis said. “To dismiss that as indoctrination [is] incredibly condescending.”
Though grassroots organizations had much to celebrate in the aftermath of the 2023 spring election, Lehner said, he and other organizers feel their work must continue with the 2024 presidential election around the corner.
“We are excited by the election results, but we know that in a state like Wisconsin, we cannot rest for a second,” Lehner said. “The fight and hard work must continue because too much continues to be at stake for young people and the next generation.”
Ava Menkes is the state news editor at The Daily Cardinal. She has covered multiple stories about Wisconsin politics and written in-depth about nurses unions and youth voter turnout. Follow her on Twitter at @AvaMenkes.
Anna Kleiber is an arts editor for The Daily Cardinal. She also reports on state politics and campus news. Follow her on Twitter at @annakleiber03.