Young voters can help Democrats. Will enough of them cast ballots in Wisconsin Supreme Court race?

“It was cool to be able to vote finally … so our voices are heard,” said first-time voter Ellyott Buettner, 18, a Marquette University freshman from Mendota, Illinois, who voted in Milwaukee on Nov. 8, 2022. Buettner is majoring in accounting and voted at the Alumni Memorial Union at Marquette.
“It was cool to be able to vote finally … so our voices are heard,” said first-time voter Ellyott Buettner, 18, a Marquette University freshman from Mendota, Illinois, who voted in Milwaukee on Nov. 8, 2022. Buettner is majoring in accounting and voted at the Alumni Memorial Union at Marquette.

The Gordon Dining Center voting ward on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus usually draws about 50 voters in spring primary elections.

But this February, 515 voters cast their ballots there, according to turnout data from the city of Madison clerk's office. Other campus-area voting wards reported similarly high voting rates. A dorm along Lake Mendota reported 39% turnout.

Those are the numbers Democrats are banking on for April 4, when liberal candidate Janet Protasiewicz and conservative candidate Dan Kelly face off in a race that will determine control of the state Supreme Court.

The matchup is already the most expensive state Supreme Court race in U.S. history and carries enormous policy stakes. The race will likely determine the fate of abortion rights, voting rights and legislative maps that have kept Republicans in control of the Legislature for more than a decade.

Young people tend to vote for Democrats, but they also tend not to vote in off-year spring elections.

In Madison, for example, single-digit turnout is common among college students during the primary, and campus voting wards are often consolidated into fewer locations, said Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell.

That wasn't the case in last month's primary, he said. Poll workers at some county locations, including campus wards, had to print out more ballots on site because the number of preprinted ballots wasn't enough. Dane County ordered ballots for each ward based on an assumption of 40% turnout. As a whole, Dane County recorded 36% turnout.

It's anecdotal at best, but in McDonell's visits to precincts and review of pollbook signatures, he noticed a lot of women voters.

Young people are the age group most supportive of abortion rights, and two in five of them nationwide said the overturning of Roe v. Wade made them more likely to vote, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

Political groups educate college voters about issues

The Supreme Court race wasn't on the radar of Molly McGee, a Marquette University freshman from Illinois who didn't vote in November and didn't plan to cast a ballot this spring either. But McGee changed her mind after hearing the court could rule on Wisconsin's 1849 law banning abortion.

More than a dozen Marquette students offered similar responses, initially saying they weren't following the race or planning to vote but later indicating they'd like to cast a ballot after learning about the issues at stake.

Michaela Brooke, a Marquette senior from the Chicago area, knows about the race and is planning to vote. But for others, it can be a hard sell.

The school has a large share of out-of-state students who often aren't tapped into Wisconsin politics or are unwilling to go through the registration process, she said. For some students, including herself on Election Day last November, finding time to vote during a busy day of classes is also a barrier.

"If they knew the stakes of this race, I think they would show up," Brooke said.

That's where groups like NextGen America come in. The liberal youth turnout organization founded by former Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer has dominated college campuses of this battleground state in midterm and presidential elections, with organizers arranging celebrity visits, installing bouncy houses and wearing costumes to draw attention to voter registration tables.

"Traditionally, NextGen hasn’t had a field program as robust in off years," said Sonja Chojnaki, the group's Wisconsin director. "But we’re making that investment now."

NextGen launched a statewide tour this week, with plans to ramp up as Election Day nears. Speakers include abortion patients, local hospital staff and Planned Parenthood workers. Some local celebrities may appear at future events.

About half of the students NextGen organizers speak with are aware and planning to vote, Chojnaki said. "It's a little hit-or-miss. There's still more education to be done. The future of abortion access and voting rights is on the line, and making that clear to young voters is important."

The College Republicans at UW-Madison aren't avoiding abortion in conversations with college voters but they are talking about a range of issues on the ballot, such as school choice, voter ID laws and Act 10, which ended the ability of public-sector unions to negotiate over any issues other than raises.

"To boil this race down to just abortion ... it’s not the whole picture," said group co-chair Ali Beneker. "There’s so much more on the line than that."

Beneker and others are spending every weekend knocking on doors and interacting with voters.

"We're treating it like any fall election because it’s just that important," she said.

Wisconsin college students face voting barriers

At UW-Milwaukee, most students a reporter spoke with were aware of the race and said abortion was the big motivator driving them to polls.

UWM student Natalie Hernandez, who is from Illinois, is casting her ballot for Protasiewicz. She registered to vote in Wisconsin after the 2020 presidential election and recognizes how much more power her vote has in a swing state.

“Ever since becoming eligible to vote in Wisconsin, I’ve felt more encouraged to vote because I feel like my vote can do more than in Illinois," Hernandez said. "Especially for the Supreme Court where I could help elect someone who will fight for reproductive rights."

Olivia Davis, a UWM freshman who also plans to vote for Protasiewicz, said she sees it as her duty to make sure friends cast their ballots, too.

"I’m definitely the most politically aware in my friend group," she said. "I try to motivate them to vote especially because this is an election that they say is so minor.”

For less politically engaged students, making the process as easy as possible increases voter participation.

Nancy Thomas, who studies college voting rates as the director of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University, said Wisconsin's restrictions on mail-in ballots, elimination of drop boxes and requirement for university-issued photo IDs that expire within two years are serious deterrents for students to cast ballots.

"Wisconsin has a history of trying to suppress the student vote," she said.

UWM student Duncan Lalond usually drives back to his home state of Illinois to vote in major elections. Will he make the effort to register in Wisconsin this spring?

“I had trouble registering in Wisconsin in the last election, so I still have to figure that part out,” he said. “I mean, I want to vote, but I’ll have to see when the time comes.”

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Will College voters turn out in Wisconsin Supreme Court race 2023