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Left-wing activists launch last-ditch student voter-registration effort in Madison
By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — While students cram for finals, liberal backers of the recall of Gov. Scott Walker are using this week to swarm the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.
Their goal: to register eligible voters among the university’s decidedly liberal students, faculty and staff before they head home for the summer — and to persuade them to vote via absentee ballot for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who is opposing Walker in the June 5 recall election.
They’re racing against the clock.
The students “are headed out of town. You pretty much catch them now, or you’ve lost them,” said John McAdams, a political scientist at Marquette University in Milwaukee. “It sounds to me like a fairly rational strategy to boost up the anti-Walker student vote.”
“Get out the vote campaigns always target areas where you think you’re going to get the votes,” McAdams said. “If you’re liberal, you target Madison students. You don’t go to Waukesha at a shopping mall to get people to vote.”
Monday, as the registrationistas deployed around campus, students were already bailing out. Many — with rolling luggage in tow — boarded the buses of Badger Coaches to head home for the summer. Others were studying for exams on the school’s extensive lawns, in dining halls or dorm rooms. It’ll all end when graduation ceremonies commence Friday.
The 2011-12 academic year formally ends that day, and the vast liberal voting bloc will evaporate — unless the activists in Madison Student Vote Coalition, the umbrella group running the student registration effort, can get to them first.
Coalition members portray themselves as nonpartisan.
“We work nonpartisan to get as many people as we can registered and voting. We’re open to any other organizations who want to help register voters,” said Steven Hughes, who says he co-founded the coalition.
But Hughes acknowledged that the coalition is made up of Walker’s liberal opponents. It’s “an organization filled with different organizations — Young Progressives, WISPIRG (a public interest research group), ACLU, Associated Students of Madison, student leaders,” he said.
Hughes is also a founder of the Young Progressives of Madison, a political organization that promotes progressive politics and activism among young people.
Documents show that everyone on the Madison Student Vote Coalition roster signed petitions for the Walker recall.
“A lot of people I met throughout the community offered to help” with the student-registration effort, he said. “Through that and through the city clerk and through word of mouth we were able to get in touch with” nonstudent volunteers.
Hughes said the coalition reached out to College Republicans in the past, but they weren’t interested in the offer.
McAdams, the Marquette political scientist, was not surprised about the coalition’s partisan nature.
“That would be a scandal if anyone actually believed a group that calls itself nonpartisan was nonpartisan,” McAdams said. “It’s extraordinarily difficult to police nonpartisan. Anybody can call themselves nonpartisan. It’s easy to see through, but they can say it if they want.”
Monday, the activists were everywhere. At a Madison Student Vote Coalition kiosk near the entrance to the university’s famed Der Rathskeller — a beer hall with a view of Lake Mendota — volunteers Marian Matthews and Maggie Dugan helped students register and fill out absentee voter ballot requests.
Like Hughes, they described their function in purely nonpartisan terms. Dugan said students would ordinarily have staffed the registration effort. But finals and graduations — along with the short election cycle — killed student enthusiasm for the project. So they stepped in.
“Many elections offer no clear choice,” said Dugan. “But this one offers two very distinct paths for the future of the state, so we think it’s important that everybody participate.”
Monday afternoon, state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, who endorsed Barrett before the primary, came to the university to speak to members of Students for Barack Obama and volunteer special registration deputies — individuals who are able to register voters — about the importance of voting in the June 5 election.
“Sen. Erpenbach came to get everyone fired up, to create a real sense of urgency because we only have a couple more days to register. Registration closes Wednesday at 5 p.m., so we’re trying to register students,” said Janel Alters, vice-chairwoman of Students for Barack Obama.
“So we have people headed out to high-traffic areas outside of libraries, outside of dining halls where we know students are going to be … We’re just trying to inform people. And then also we have absentee ballot forms so people can fill those out and have them sent wherever they’re going to be.”
The more than 40 volunteers canvassed the university like seasoned panhandlers.
“Are you registered to vote?” one volunteer called to a passer-by. When the passer-by said he was, she followed up: “Do you need an absentee ballot?”
A teenage girl with her mother, who identified herself as a member of We Are Wisconsin, a coalition of union organizations, held a “Register to Vote” sign, the words in red, white and blue.
The prospect of lost student votes has preoccupied state Democrats for months. In March, Scot Ross, then-spokesman for Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, worried that the Government Accountability Board, the state’s election watchdog, would push the recall vote beyond the school year. That would make it more difficult for recall supporters to mobilize the university’s thousands of student voters, most of them liberal voters, and many part-time Madison residents.
“We will pursue any and all means available to ensure Wisconsin’s university students are not disenfranchised by this unjustified and unnecessary delay,” Ross said, according to a Wisconsin State Journal article at the time.
Like many students, Hannah Somers, chairwoman of Madison Student Vote Coalition, has finished finals. Wisconsin Reporter reached her by phone at her family’s Pittsburgh home. But she’s registered in Madison, she said, and will vote via absentee voter ballot.
Who will she vote for? “I’d rather not say,” she said. “I don’t want to get anyone in trouble.”
Somers signed a recall petition Nov. 15, the first day of eligibility.