On the day of the Wisconsin spring primary in February, Peter German was determined to vote.
In between strained breaths, German — a freshman from West Bend attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison — said he had been running from building to building in an attempt to cast his ballot. “I haven’t missed an election yet,” he said, “so I’ll be damned if I’m going to now.”
The previous day, he tried to register to vote at the Madison City Clerk’s office with no luck — in-person registration was not available. And he lacked the required form of identification and documents under Wisconsin’s voter ID law, implemented in 2015 after a series of legal battles.
On Feb. 18, Election Day, he again could not vote because he did not have a voter-compliant photo ID card. This sent German crisscrossing campus for nearly an hour, where he was finally able to cast his ballot — thanks to a freshly printed student voter card.
As German learned, for students living away from home, Wisconsin is one of the most difficult states in which to vote. Student IDs issued by state colleges and universities in Wisconsin are not sufficient for voting, requiring students to go through additional hoops if they wish to vote using their college address.
Wisconsin’s roughly 340,000 college students make up 6.9% of the eligible voting population, according to the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University. That is a critical bloc in a state in which candidates, including Donald Trump, have won by about 1 percentage point.
The institute found that in 2018, Wisconsin counties with college students went heavily for Democrat Tony Evers, while those without college students favored incumbent Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who lost by just over 1 percentage point.
Students who do not vote are “invisible” to policy makers, said institute director Nancy L. Thomas. But if they vote, students can be powerful, she said.
“Young people are now the biggest demographic group, bigger than the ‘boomers,’ ” Thomas said, “and large enough to shape policy for decades.”
Experiences like German’s are why Common Cause Wisconsin, the state’s largest nonpartisan political reform organization, has filed a federal lawsuit against the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
The lawsuit is one of three pending federal challenges to voting ID requirements for Wisconsin college students. The Common Cause suit alleges these requirements violate the constitutional requirement that laws be equally applied.
Studies show photo ID laws depress turnout among young voters, who are more likely to vote Democratic. Nearly 60% of U.S. voters ages 18 to 25 identify as Democrats, according to the Pew Research Center.
One national study by the University of North Carolina-Wilmington found that strict ID laws have a particularly negative impact on student voter turnout. It found students in states with strict voter ID laws are less likely to participate in elections compared to students in states that lack them.
Now, after the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many students from their campus homes and wreaked havoc on the state’s election processes, college voters are likely facing even more hurdles.
On April 7, while some out-of-state students chose to vote in person, others who left Wisconsin reverted to voting in their home state — or decided not to vote at all, said Bennett Shapiro, an organizer for the progressive political action committee NextGen America, which mobilizes youth voters. “Everybody,” he said, “was very confused.”
Wisconsin’s ‘strict’ ID law
Wisconsin requires all voters to present an acceptable photo ID, such as a driver’s license, state ID card or passport. Some out-of-state students or those who do not have one of the permitted photo IDs can obtain a student voter card from their university or college. It is a confusing process for many students.
The Campus Vote Project, an organization that seeks to reduce barriers in student voting, identifies Wisconsin as one of 17 “strict voter ID” states that reject voters if they are unable to present an accepted form of ID.
In 2011, the Republican-run Legislature passed a law stating that a Wisconsin student may use a campus photo ID to vote only if it includes a signature and an expiration date not more than two years after it was issued — even if issued by a four-year institution. That invalidated ID cards from many Wisconsin public universities and colleges. The law also requires students to provide an enrollment document, in addition to their ID, to be allowed to vote.
Ten of the “strict” states, including Wisconsin, permit some student IDs for voting, but many have additional requirements. Wisconsin’s is the only law that calls for a separate proof of enrollment when using a student ID to vote. Seven states do not accept student IDs for voting at all.
Even under normal circumstances, students have a tough time understanding voting laws, which often put the burden on them — not the government — to verify that they are eligible to vote. The pandemic makes that burden even heavier, said Michael DeCrescenzo, a political science doctoral student at UW-Madison who researched the effects of Wisconsin’s voter ID law on turnout.
“Getting people to comply with bureaucratic processes is hard, even under ideal scenarios,” he said.
Shapiro said the state’s Safer at Home order prompted disarray just before the April 7 primary.
“When people were packing up and heading home… for the pandemic, the first thing on their mind was not ‘How am I going to vote from home?’ They were trying to get home safely,” he said.
German left his UW-Madison dorm in the midst of the pandemic to move back to his hometown of West Bend. He was determined to vote in the April election. After several obstacles, he finally received his absentee ballot with days to spare.
“It’s been such a confusing process so far,” German said. “There’s just these weird roadblocks that come out of left field: emails sent to an account I don’t check that often; weird extra layers of security required. It’s strange.”
What’s in a voter ID?
Jay Heck, the executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin, argues that Wisconsin’s ID requirements for young people violate their constitutional rights, forcing them to “jump through more hoops unnecessarily” than other citizens.
At UW-Madison, Wisconsin’s largest university, student ID cards known as WisCards are not compliant with state laws for voting. Among the 13 four-year UW System schools, only four use student IDs that are also voter-compliant. To comply with the law, UW System campuses offer separate voter IDs to students upon request.
Heck said Republican lawmakers appear to have designed the requirements to discourage students from turning out at the polls.
“Obviously a lot of college students are Republican, but their calculation is that more college students would likely vote for Democrats,” he said, adding the requirement “does give (Republicans) a partisan advantage.”
ID requirement suppresses student vote
According to a Stanford University study on strict photo ID laws, the law in North Carolina — which was similar to Wisconsin — was found to have deterrent effects on young people, racial minorities and Democrats, all of whom are less likely to have such photo IDs — even after it was repealed in 2016.
That effect seems to be felt on Wisconsin campuses as well, said Connor Mathias, former UW-Milwaukee Student Association president.
“Students are going to be hindered if they’re not exactly sure what counts as a voter ID, and they have to go through this convoluted process,” he said.
And historically, college-aged individuals are also much less likely to vote than their older counterparts. The U.S. Census Bureau found 36% of 18- to 29-year-olds voted in November 2018, compared to 66% of people aged 65 and older.
DeCrescenzo said the precise impact of voter ID laws on voting is small, and its effect on students is hard to measure.
But, “I don’t want to understate the fact that if there are people who cannot vote, who otherwise would, then that is something that we should be seriously looking at,” he said.
Multiple lawsuits pending
In addition to the Common Cause lawsuit, two other matters challenging Wisconsin’s requirements for college student voters are pending in federal courts.
In a lawsuit filed in November, the Andrew Goodman Foundation — named after a slain civil rights activist — argues that the requirements unconstitutionally restrict young people’s right to vote.
Another challenge, languishing for years in the federal court system, is the 2015 lawsuit filed by plaintiffs including One Wisconsin Institute, which argues the requirement for a separate student ID and issuance and expiration dates do not contribute to any additional protection against fraudulent voting. The organization deems the requirements “irrational and unjustified.”
That suit is still pending in the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Heck said the Common Cause case is on hold until that case is resolved, and “I frankly don’t anticipate action on it before November.”
Jessie Gomez is one of the plaintiffs in the Common Cause lawsuit. She has felt the effects of Wisconsin’s strict ID laws.
When Gomez — a Marquette University student from Illinois — showed up to her campus polling place in the November 2018 election, she was initially turned away because she did not have a voter ID.
As a freshman voting in Wisconsin for the first time, Gomez did not know about the state’s requirements. In Illinois, there is no ID required to vote in person, which is similar to 14 other states’ policies. Gomez had to shuffle around campus to obtain a voter-compliant ID card, something she expected to be a 15-minute process. Instead, it took nearly two hours.
“It was such a horrible experience for me,” she said. “I don’t want to go through all that again.”
Common Cause’s lawsuit seeks to get rid of the signature, issuance date and two-year expiration date requirements — which would make most existing campus IDs voter compliant.
Gomez has moved on from trying to vote in Wisconsin. At spring break, she returned home to Illinois, where she easily registered and voted in that state’s March primary.
“I knew that (voting in Wisconsin) was probably going to be a pain.”
Wisconsin Watch Managing Editor Dee J. Hall contributed to this story, which was produced as part of an investigative reporting class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication under the direction of Hall. Wisconsin Watch’s collaborations with journalism students are funded in part by the Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment at UW-Madison.
The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
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