GETTING OUT THE VOTE DURING COVID-19: LESSONS FROM WISCONSIN FELLOWS

By Luke Verdecchia, Campus Election Engagement Project Wisconsin Director

CEEP Fellows in Wisconsin faced a daunting challenge leading up to the state’s April 7 election—promoting student voting while also being mindful of recommendations from public health officials meant to limit community spread of COVID-19.

Although many other states postponed their primary elections due to COVID-19, Wisconsin was the first state to hold its primary election as scheduled with a stay-at-home order in effect. State and local election officials were scrambling to meet an unprecedented demand in absentee ballot requests after the Wisconsin Elections Commission recommended that voters choose to vote absentee to reduce crowding at polling places on April 7, of which there were far fewer than normal, especially in metropolitan areas like Milwaukee and Green Bay. Many voters were left feeling confused about how they should vote safely given the stay-at-home order, and many student voters who had previously registered to vote at their campus addresses were unsure whether or not they could still vote since they were no longer physically on campus.

Fellows met this challenge with determination and grace and had the benefit of incredible support structures at their respective institutions—all while dealing with disruptions in their own day-to-day lives due to COVID-19. Here are seven takeaways that explain how Fellows met this unique challenge.

Election Engagement Coalitions Played a Crucial Role in Promoting Student Voting

Before COVID-19 impacted campus operations and forced administrators to cancel in-person instruction, many Fellows were already a part of their institutions’ nonpartisan election engagement coalitions. These coalitions—composed of administrators, staff, faculty members, student leaders and community partners—continued to meet regularly via videoconference to promote student voting and regularly provide students with relevant information in order to safely navigate the voting process. Once institutions moved to online instruction (just a couple of weeks prior to the state’s April 7 election), these coalitions served as valuable resources and support structures for Fellows to continue their Fellowship work and made them feel like they were not alone in their work, which was crucial given the disruptions these students were experiencing in their own day-to-day lives. These election engagement coalitions will continue to play a crucial role in supporting the Fellows’ work and promoting student voting more generally.

Social Media Was the Best Way to Share Information With Students

Being a part of their institutions’ election engagement coalitions meant that Fellows also had access to their institutions’ official social media accounts (or a voting-specific social media account maintained by the institution) to share relevant and up-to-date information with students (e.g., how to request an absentee ballot). Fellows at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for instance, as a part of their institution’s BadgersVote coalition, created content to post to their institution’s official Instagram account, which boasts over 142,000 followers, using Stories to post relevant and up-to-date information for students to act upon and linking to their institution’s voter information webpage. Social media was a particularly useful tool, because election information was frequently changing, culminating with a pair of late-night court rulings the day before the election, one of which overturned a previously granted extension to return completed absentee ballots. Social media will continue to play a crucial role in providing students with timely information to safely navigate the voting process since students are most likely to be checking those platforms regularly.

Personal Networks Were Also Valuable

Fellows also shared relevant and up-to-date information with family members, friends and classmates to make sure they had all of the information they needed to safely navigate the voting process. Some Fellows noted that peers to whom they previously reached out later responded when they requested an absentee ballot, for instance, and passed along that information to their own peers. It’s easy to take for granted the interactions students have just before or after class, and Fellows made sure not to lose sight of the simplicity, and effectiveness, of peer-to-peer engagement, since it was often those text messages that ultimately spurred action. Personal networks served as an effective peer-to-peer engagement strategy that has the potential to expand Fellows’ impact.

Faculty Members Played a Role in Providing Students With Information

Fellows, and the election engagement coalitions of which they were a part, reached out to faculty members to provide students with relevant and up-to-date information, capitalizing on the fact that attendance is, albeit online, often mandatory. Many faculty members were supportive of the practice and devoted time at the beginning of their classes to encourage their students to vote and walk them through how to request an absentee ballot using the state’s MyVote website. Faculty members can have an even stronger impact this fall semester by directly encouraging their students to vote, whether instruction is conducted in-person or online.

Voter Registration Will Likely Be Harder to Promote During the Pandemic

Many students had already registered to vote before COVID-19 impacted campus operations and were subsequently able to request an absentee ballot fairly easily because of that fact. Students who were not already registered to vote, or needed to update their address, faced logistical hurdles. Although Wisconsin offers online voter registration, it’s often not the preferred method for students since they would need an unexpired Wisconsin driver’s license or ID card and would have to update the address on file if it doesn’t match their current address, which it usually does not. Students can complete a voter registration form at home and mail it to their municipal clerk’s office, but many students don’t have a printer at home and relied on printers at campus libraries, which were closed due to COVID-19. Voter registration will continue to present logistical hurdles, and this will vary based on the status of campus operations.

There Is, However, a Particularly Strong Opportunity for Voter Education

In addition to the presidential preference primary, there was also a statewide race on the ballot for the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Fellows at UW-Green Bay organized a series of virtual candidate presentations, using CEEP’s nonpartisan candidate guide for the closely watched race between incumbent Justice Daniel Kelly and Judge Jill Karofsky of the Dane County Circuit Court to inform students about the race and the role of the state Supreme Court. Students reacted positively to the events, and some admitted that they were unaware of the race altogether or didn’t realize that state Supreme Court justices were elected to their positions. There will continue to be strong opportunities for voter education, specifically with respect to local and/or statewide races.

There Are Plenty of Reasons for Students to Get Out the Vote

For many students, the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent economic downturn demonstrated a wide variety of public policy responses and helped expose societal inequities that have been ignored for too long. As a result, many students felt particularly compelled to make their voice heard and vote. The fact that the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued one of the two rulings affecting the state’s April 7 election made some students especially aware of the role of the state Supreme Court. The current protests against police violence and racism further validates this point of view as voters are recognizing the roles policymakers play at the federal, state and local levels in addressing these issues and the role they play as voters in putting people into power who best align with one’s views.