“I felt like none of our voices were being heard and no one was getting the representation they deserved, so I put my hand in the ring.”
Juliana Bennett, who is studying business at the University of Wisconsin, first got involved in politics during the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, where she attended protests and eventually became an organizer. She, along with a few other UW students, organized the March on Madison that August.
UW’s response to the BLM movement was mostly lip service, Bennett said. She felt the need to rally students together, urging UW to enact actionable initiatives to make students of color like herself feel safe and welcomed on campus.
Bennett went on to join the Associated Students of Madison, which serves as student government on campus. Here, she pushed forward initiatives including the vote of no confidence in the UW Police Department and raising wages for student workers.
“Then, from ASM, I started getting involved in city government and realized that I was just very frustrated at that point,” Bennett said.
Bennett was elected as District 8 alderperson in April of 2021, where she sits on the Campus Area Committee, the Madison Public Library Board and the Public Safety Review Committee and more.
Despite her intense involvement in city government as an elected official, Bennett hasn’t lost sight of her identity as a student at UW.
“One thing that I always take on council is that I’m an activist first, but I’m also a student activist — so being a student is integral to my identity at this moment and who I am on council,” Bennett said.
Through voting and other forms of civic participation, Bennett encourages UW students to engage themselves in local politics because students can play an integral role in making lasting change.
Voicing concerns to local representatives, attending ASM and city council meetings and joining campus organizations that are dedicated to civic engagement are all ways to participate in politics outside of voting, Bennett said.
Though some UW students — like Bennett — weave politics throughout their college experience, this isn’t the case for many. But, with a decisive midterm election on the horizon, the need for student participation in politics has never been greater.
To Vote or Not to Vote
Out-of-state students like Muiz Aminu have the option to vote in their home state or in Wisconsin. But, Aminu won’t be doing either. He feels his vote won’t be the deciding factor in an election, so it doesn’t matter whether he does or doesn’t vote.
Aminu also says that the political advertisements he sees on TikTok and YouTube don’t persuade him to vote. He said it feels like the ads are smear campaigns against the opponent and lack important details about candidates’ campaign promises.
“There hasn’t been much to persuade me [that] this is the person that’s going to make the change that we need…” Aminu said. “You’re [politicians] spending all this money telling me what your opponent has done bad but what have you done good? You’re giving me nothing to work with.”
Though he won’t be voting in the November election, Aminu says he spends a lot of time discussing politics with his parents, who immigrated from Nigeria when he was 8 years old. He also discusses politics with his friends at school.
Since none of his friends are deeply set in their ideas about politics, regular discussion helps them form their own opinions on the issues covered in the media, Aminu said.
UW student Amanda Barrett is from Illinois and said her decision not to vote is due to her lack of knowledge about the candidates running for office, and her feeling like it’s unfair to vote in a state that she doesn’t live in year round.
“I’m just not familiar with the people that are running for the midterm elections…” Barrett said. “[And] I’m not going to live here long term. It’s not my place to decide who gets to run this place.”
Juliana Bennett has found that searching up the campaign websites of candidates can give students a good understanding of who will be representing them on either side of the political spectrum.
Barrett and Aminu both shared their thoughts on how the voting system might better appeal to young people like themselves. Barrett thinks if she had access to unbiased information about the candidates, she might be more likely to be at the polls on election day. Aminu suggested online voting as a way to include UW students with busy college schedules.
Despite student fatigue from the onslaught of political ads, and confusion about the voting process altogether, some students at UW prioritize participation in local politics.
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Going Above and Beyond
College Democrats Chair Kevin Jacobson said that in his experience as a UW student, civic engagement follows him everywhere.
“I think about it when I’m going to class and when I’m going to work… Because it just impacts so much of our lives,” Jacobson said.
College Republicans Chair Joe Krantz echoed this sentiment, citing his off-campus job at the Capitol and political science courses.
Krantz uses civic engagement to make change in issues he cares deeply about. Krantz works at the Capitol where he researches tax policy and how to reduce the burden of taxes on Wisconsin residents.
“Civic engagement is on my mind 80% of the time,” Krantz said. “Obviously college and schooling is important, but I am working in real-world tax policy.”
Elected officials around the U.S. recognize the importance of the student vote, too. Recently, politicians like U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren and gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels have visited campus to inspire student voter turnout.
Governor Tony Evers urges students to not only vote in gubernatorial and presidential elections, but in local elections as well. Even without deciding paristan affiliation, students can access resources like student journalism to become informed and involved, which are both necessary for ensuring a sound democracy, Evers said.
“Voting is the most important part of our democracy,” Evers said. “Being active around voting and getting people to vote — I think [that] is the most important thing.”
Wisconsin’s 2022 November midterm carries weight for citizens and students alike. From election certification to important policy changes, the outcome of the Nov. 8 midterms will intrinsically affect UW students.
Important Issues for Students
On Nov. 8, incumbent Gov. Tony Evers (D) will be facing Tim Michels (R) in the race for governor. This election will decide whether Wisconsin’s government remains divided or is completely controlled by Republicans, UW political science professor Kenneth Mayer said.
There are currently 21 Republican State Senate Representatives and 12 Democrat Representatives, according to the Wisconsin State Legislature website. The State Assembly is made up of 57 Republicans and 38 Democrats. Despite this, Gov. Evers beat incumbent Scott Walker (R) by nearly a full percentage point in 2018.
“There is zero chance that Democrats will win a majority in either the State Assembly or the State Senate,” Mayer said. “One of the reasons that’s the case is that the legislature has been gerrymandered to an extraordinary degree.”
Gerrymandering works by packing the opposition — in this case, Democrats — into as few districts as possible, where they will win an overwhelming majority, while a large number of the remaining districts will be mostly Republican, Mayer said.
This will prevent a Democratic majority in the state legislature, even if the majority of Wisconsinites vote blue, Mayer said.
“It’s possible that the way that the state legislative lines have been drawn, Republicans could get 48% of the vote and have two thirds of the seats in the legislature,” Mayer said. “For Democrats to win a majority in the legislature… Democrats would probably have to win 60% of the vote statewide. And that’s not happening.”
A victory for Republican Tim Michels in the gubernatorial race will mean unified Republican control in Wisconsin, allowing them to enact whatever policies they choose, Mayer said.
According to Krantz, Republicans are chiefly concerned about crime rates and the economy going into the midterm election.
According to a PEW research study, seven in 10 Americans think inflation is the biggest problem facing the U.S. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index found that energy costs have risen by nearly 20% and food costs have risen by 11% in the last 12 months.
“The most important issues right now are the economy and crime and for me, I’m about to graduate and start my adult life in the real world…” Krantz said. “So I want to be able to have some financial stability, and not be drowning in inflation and having trouble paying rent, paying the bills, being able to save for my family.”
On the other hand, for students who lean Democrat, one important issue to consider is the potential change in the review process for upcoming elections, Jacobson said.
The power of the Wisconsin Election Commission, a bipartisan group responsible for certifying election results, could be called into question pending a Republican victory in the gubernatorial race.
Tim Michels’ Blueprint to Restore Election Integrity includes repealing all previous election guidance from the Wisconsin Election Commission and preventing the implementation of further recommendations.
“Going forward, we could see the State Legislature claim who’s victorious, not based on the actual electoral results …” Jacobson said. “And that’s a very real possibility.”
Also, Evers has appointed the vast majority of members of the Board of Regents, which oversees decision making for the University of Wisconsin System schools. But his appointees have not yet been confirmed by the State Senate, Jacobson said. If Evers is not re-elected, these seats could be filled by Michels, which could have profound effects on UW.
A Republican-appointed Board of Regents could have the power to change protest policies, ethnic studies requirements and more broadly, how UW governs itself, Jacobson said.
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Navigating the Nuances of Student Voting
Between the 2014 and 2018 midterm elections, national student voter turnout increased from 19% to 40%, according to the Institute of Democracy and Higher Education’s National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement.
Wisconsin ranks highly in the nation-wide Youth Electoral Significance Index, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. The index shows where the youth vote has the highest likelihood of impacting election results. Wisconsin ranks fifth in the race for senator and first in the race for governor, indicating the importance of the student vote.
At the University of Wisconsin, both student registration rates and student voting rates increased from 2014 to 2018. Voting rates reached 56% in the 2018 midterm, a 12.2% increase from 2014 and vastly surpassing the 38.5% average turnout rate for more than 1,100 U.S. colleges involved in the study. UW’s student registration rate increased slightly more than 8% between the 2014 and 2018 midterm elections, according to the NSLVE report.
It is federal law that any university or college receiving government funding — which is nearly all of them — must provide opportunities for students to register to vote, Wisconsin Coordinator for the CampusVote Project Kristen Hansen said.
CampusVote, which works closely with the BadgerVote coalition, helps UW fulfill these requirements by breaking down barriers to registration and voting UW students face, Hansen said. They provide resources including bringing a clerk onto campus for registration, facilitating early voting and employing paid fellows to assist the BadgerVote Coalition and Morgridge Center — all of which are vetted by the lawyers at the Fair Election Center, CampusVote’s parent organization.
Despite this, national student voting turnout lags significantly behind rates for older citizens — by around 30 to 40 percentage points depending on the election, Mayer said.
In the 2018 midterm, turnout for citizens over the age of 65 was 63.8%, while turnout for voters between the ages of 18-24 was 30.1%, according to Statista.
Young people vote at a lower rate because voting is largely a habit — and young people are inherently less familiar with the bureaucratic process of registering and voting, Mayer said.
Resources like MyVote and the 411 Voters Guide can be intuitive resources for first-time voters by walking them through the registration process, locating polling places and reviewing the ballot for their municipality, League of Women Voters Wisconsin Executive Director Debra Cronmiller said.
“One of my most important takeaways for younger voters, maybe voters who are facing their first election… Is that voting is like many things in life — when you make the habit of doing it, you end up doing it for your whole life,” Cronmiller said.
The League of Women Voters is a nationwide, nonpartisan grassroots organization dedicated to increasing democratic participation, according to LWV’s website. In Wisconsin and across the U.S., they work closely with high schools and colleges, since this is a critical age for forming voting habits, Cronmiller said.
For many people — but especially first-time voters — the acts required for registration can be daunting, Cronmiller said.
“These acts of registering to vote can be confusing, or maybe you convince yourself it’s a difficult process, when in fact these things are pretty easy to accomplish with the documents you would have at your ready access…,” Cronmiller said. “It is about planning to do it, though.”
According to Jacobson, reluctance to vote among UW students comes down to voter ID laws and convenience.
Student IDs don’t count as voter IDs, and registration in advance is almost a necessity since polling places are so busy, Jacobson said. And, if a student wants to vote in their home municipality, they must order an absentee ballot weeks in advance.
“I think each of those creates its own unique barrier that stops a certain percentage of students from voting,” Jacobson said.
But Krantz said the main reason students are less likely to vote is because they don’t care enough about the issues that are publicized.
Hot button issues are nearly impossible to avoid ahead of an important election, Krantz said. Most people are aware of the election and the policies being discussed due to the sheer volume of TV and social media advertisements, Krantz said.
Save for extenuating circumstances on election day, the primary reason students don’t make it to the polls is because they aren’t invested enough in the issues candidates are talking about, Krantz said.
Bennett compared voting to exercising — it always pays off in the end.
“Sometimes I really don’t want to work out, but when I go do it I never regret it,” Bennett said. “You’re not going to regret voting either way.”
The November midterm will decide the race for governor, state senator, senate and assembly district representatives, among other positions. UW students can register to vote at Memorial Union and Union South until Nov. 4. My Vote allows Wisconsin residents to view their ballot and polling place ahead of time based on their address.