By M.D. Kittle and Kirsten Adshead | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — In a gubernatorial recall election where every vote matters, the young voter could make a big difference in deciding who resides in the governor’s mansion.
But student voters, in particular, will have to make a better showing in the June 5 general election than they did in this month’s party primaries, if they want to be counted. If they don’t show up, it could prove costly to the Democrats’ chances.
Voter turnout in Madison’s so-called student wards ran well behind the Capital City’s total turnout of 41 percent, and much lower than the statewide voter count of 30.2 percent.
Some student wards saw single-digit turnout, as low as 7 percent
Same for Green Bay, and Eau Claire, where turnout was 14 percent in Wards 20 and 24, which encompass the on-campus dorms at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
Do the young voter primary numbers presage turnout in Wisconsin’s historic recall elections?
“It’s a massive concern,” said Jordan Weidel, past chairman of the College Democrats of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “That’s why it’s incredibly important to be going out and making an effort on that front. We know turnout is going to be low, and we know it’s going to be down to the direct resources that are going to effect this race.”
A Marquette University Law School poll last month showed Walker and Barrett in a dead heat, although polling this week showed Walker opening up a more comfortable lead.
“While other polls also show Walker in the lead, no one is suggesting that this race is anywhere near over,” according to a statement with the We Ask America poll of 1,219 likely voters that found Walker with a 9 percentage point lead over Barrett, 52 percent to 43 percent. Walker’s lead among independents was 3 percentage points, just outside the poll’s margin of error of 2.4 percentage points.
We Ask America said 95 percent of respondents planned to vote.
With possibly every vote on the line, Democrats are working hard to organize a small but critical portion of their voting bloc: the young vote, particularly students.
“Obviously, students, in pretty much all of the elections that have gone on recently, have swung very hard to the left; therefore, they could have a lot of votes Tom Barrett needs to get elected,” Weidel said.
He graduates in a few days with a degree in botany and a love of politics. Weidel said he’ll be at the polls June 5; it’s getting his peers there that will require the heavy lifting.
Two leaders of young Republican organizations, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, did not return Wisconsin Reporter’s requests for comment.
Among the biggest challenges, Weidel and others said, is the new voter ID law that expands voter residency requirements from 10 to 28 days. As the spring semester ends and students head home for the summer, it appears many will have to vote absentee or make a return trip to their respective schools to vote next month.
David Siemers, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, said there is a lot of confusion surrounding the residency issue. While much of the voter ID law is stalled in court, the residency requirement holds, but Siemers said many students may not have gotten the word.
“That may have an effect in depressing student turnout,” he said. “Is that big? Sure, that’s big, if it’s a close election.”
The compressed nature of the recall election and the rules governing it have created a slimmer window in general for absentee voting, as reported in Wisconsin Reporter last week. Effectively, local elections officials are breaking the state law that requires a longer absentee timeline to uphold the state constitution on recalls.
While this election could come down to the wire, Siemers said campaigns shouldn’t count on the student turnout, which has been much lower than the overall voter population, to decide their fate.
He said he expects student turnout to ramp up in the general election compared to the primary, which often has a weak showing.
But the recall primary was different, historic. And the numbers in general show it.
North of 1.3 million voted. Turnout was the highest in a partisan election in 60 years.
Walker picked up more than 620,000 votes, nearly as many as the four Democratic recall candidates received.
Siemers said called the campaign weird, unlike the general election cycle.
“It’s about mobilizing the people you think are on your side, rather than convincing people” to vote for your candidate, he said.
Walker’s campaign last week said it had made contact with more than 2 million likely Republican voters.
For Democrats, connecting to a voting base that runs relatively liberal but doesn’t always make it to the polls, might turn into a critical numbers game.
“The effort is being made to get to college students, and the effort has been successful in an interesting way,” Weidel said, noting Democrats have a database of potential young voter cell phone numbers, recognizing that students rarely communicate on land lines.