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Monday, September 15, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 48.0° F  Fair
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Students get shaft in the Wisconsin recall: New residency rules hurt youth turnout
About two dozen voters were turned away from Memorial Library because they didn't have suitable proof of residency.
About two dozen voters were turned away from Memorial Library because they didn't have suitable proof of residency.
Credit:Lukas Keapproth / WI Center for Investigative Journalism

Dozens of college students were disenfranchised around the state by recent changes to the voter laws, says a coordinator with the League of Women Voters.

Carolyn Castore, who is coordinating the League of Women Voters Wisconsin/Election Protection initiative, says that at 6 p.m. on the day of the June 5 recall election, the League had received 1,700 calls about problems voting from around the state.

Though she didn't have a breakdown of the types of problems reported, Castore says dozens of students left polling stations without being able to register.

"We know people walked away from the polls and didn't vote," she says. "So people were disenfranchised."

Although the photo ID requirements of the state's new Voter ID law were not in effect, due to two court injunctions, other elements were. This included a requirement that people prove residency for at least 28 days in order to register. The previous requirement was 10 days.

The new requirement put many college students in a bind. The spring semester ended May 19, and students living in dorms moved to apartment sublets or back home with their parents for the summer. If they voted in the May recall primary, there was no way to switch their registration by the June 5 general election.

So they were forced to vote by absentee ballot in their old district. However, if they didn't vote in the May primary, Castore says, they could reregister in a new district.

But those who tried to do so faced some difficulties. They needed to prove residency at least 28 days prior, and in some cases poll workers didn't understand the law, Castore says. Another change was that people (say, a parent or friend) are no longer allowed to vouch for others attempting to register as legitimate residents.

"It particularly hit the college students who went home for the summer," she says. "We got a lot of calls from Milwaukee and also from many smaller communities, where it was a surprise to them that they weren't allowed to vote."

In some cases, Castore says, independent groups - including one called True the Vote - raised "questions...about a [student's] right to vote" with poll workers.

Madison Ald. Mike Verveer has been a volunteer poll worker for about two decades, always working in the campus districts. On Tuesday, he was at Memorial Library, where he says "we had to turn away at least two dozen voters who seemingly are going to be disenfranchised. They left fed up because they don't have any suitable proof of residency."

One poll worker at the library helped save the day for several voters by bringing her laptop and printer to the poll and letting students find suitable proof online, which they could print out.

Verveer also praises Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl for helping students register for absentee ballots at the polls during the May primary. "It could have been even more disastrous...if there hadn't been an easy way for them to request absentee ballots when they voted in the primary."

Hundreds of absentee ballots were sent out, though as of Monday, not all of them had been returned (ballots postmarked by Tuesday will still be counted, if received by Friday).

For instance, 256 ballots were sent out for the Holt Commons ward, with exactly half having been returned as of Monday.

In eight Madison wards that are heavily populated with students, 15,265 people voted. Direct comparisons to 2010 are difficult because of redistricting and wards that have mixed populations. However, in the 2010 gubernatorial election, 22,250 people voted in 10 heavily populated student wards.

Madison Ald. Scott Resnick, who represents the heavily student district around UW-Madison, was generally pleased with the turnout. "In the areas of dorms, it was pretty dismal," he says. "In other areas that had students living, like Spring Street and Regent neighborhood, turnout was great."

Gordon Commons, a campus location where many of the UW-Madison students are gone for the summer, had the lowest turnout in the city, with just 297 voting. That's 7% of the people registered to vote in the ward.

Overall in Madison, turnout was high, with 120,739 people voting, 73% of the number of people who were registered to vote before Tuesday.

And throughout Dane County, 66% of registered voters cast ballots Tuesday, an eight-point increase from the 2010 gubernatorial election.

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