Student Stories

Standing Up for Out-of-State Student Voting Rights at UW-Madison

Wisconsin, like 17 other states, requires voters to present photo identification at the polls. The law, which the state legislature passed in 2011, faced a series of lawsuits, but the United States Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge in 2015. The law then took full effect.

Wisconsin’s photo ID law and other voting policies in the state directly affect student voters. Qualifying IDs for voters include a current or expired Wisconsin driver license or DOT-issued identification card, a U.S. passport, or a military ID card. Student IDs can qualify, but only if they contain the date of issuance, the signature of the student, and an expiration date no later than two years after the date of issuance. Students must also bring documented proof of enrollment if they use their student ID as voter ID.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, student IDs (called Wiscards) do not qualify as a valid form of voter ID, because they do not have the student’s signature and do not expire within two years. This means out-of-state students face an added step when attempting to vote.

Brian Canup (center) creates a campus action plan at the National Civic Leadership Training Summit

Vote Everywhere Team Leader Brian Canup, an out-of-state student from California, has experienced the difficulties of voting in Wisconsin first-hand.

More than some other schools in the state, The University of Wisconsin- Madison “does a pretty good job giving out voter IDs,” according to Brian. The school provides separate voter-compliant ID card, which the Wiscard office prints upon request.

When Brian went for his voter ID, he found the process fairly simple. “I got my student ID as a freshman, and then immediately got my voter ID,” he says. Some students, however, wait until they’re ready to vote to begin the process. “With limited hours and limited staffing, it can become pretty difficult, especially when it’s crunch time. If you go to vote and don’t have the ID, you’ll end up waiting 3 hours trying to get it.”

Even though the University makes the ID available, not all students know about it. One of Brian’s fellow Ambassadors, Laurel Noack, explains that when she began at UW-Madison, no one told her about the option of receiving a voter ID. “Maybe they saw I was a Wisconsin resident, and just thought I didn’t need it,” she explains. This oversight ignores the possibility that in-state students who do not drive might also require photo ID.

In addition, the location of the ID printer isn’t convenient for many students. “It’s pretty far from the general campus,” Laurel notes. “A lot of students don’t go that way.” Brian adds, “It’s about a fifteen-minute walk from the main campus, and even further from where many of the students live.”

Besides the required photo ID, the registration process creates difficulty for out-of-state students in Wisconsin, as well. “When I first moved here, I spent two hours looking over the online voter registration system, and I came away feeling even more confused,” Brian says. Brian took the time to meet with the City Clerk’s Office to gain explanation of the process, but most students are more likely to give up when they see the complicated system. “It’s a really confusing process, and if you’re not politically active, you won’t go through the process.” Laurel adds that even for in-state students, “The online system is tricky about apartment buildings, which is where most students live.”

Out-of-state students and anyone else without a driver license or DOT-issued ID cannot register to vote online. They must register by mail or in person at the City Clerk’s Office or another location staffed by an Election Registration Official. Anyone without a Wisconsin driver license or DOT-issued ID must also provide proof of residence. “They try to tell you that you can’t submit proof of residency online, but that’s actually not true. You can screenshot it and send it to the City Clerk,” Brian explains.

The proof of residency is flexible, including bank statements, government forms, and even parking tickets, but students may still have difficulty determining what qualifies. “You can also do something that I didn’t know until recently. The school has a page where you can update your address, and it automatically files a letter within the University of Wisconsin system. Since we’re a state school, that counts as a government document. I don’t know how many people know about that,” he explains.

Even upon reaching the polls with fully qualifying IDs, students may find additional barriers. On election day, a poll worker asked Brian if he had a bus pass, along with his other ID. Luckily, Brian knew the laws and told the poll worker that he had been in contact with the City Clerk’s Office regarding the rules, and knew that his ID was sufficient. He was permitted to vote, but a less confident student may have been deterred.

VE Ambassador Alex Kulstad reaches out to voters on National Voter Registration Day

As Vote Everywhere Ambassadors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Brian, Laurel, and Alex Kulstad know they need to work hard to combat the voter restrictions Wisconsin places on students. Their first course of action is to educate students about the ID and residency requirements. They put up signs and distribute fliers showing what students need to vote. They also hold outreach events and are planning targeted outreach to students with the lowest voter turnout, including students of color and STEM students.

They plan to work with student housing in the future to implement registration workshops for first year students in their dormitories, as a way to directly reach new students, rather than waiting for students to come to events.

As their team becomes more well-known on campus, students know to reach out to them with any questions they have about campus voting. By building awareness, the team aims to take some of the confusion out of navigating the complicated Wisconsin voting system, and ensure all students understand what they need to do to vote.

UW-Madison’s Vote Everywhere Team (from left): Alex Kulstad, Laurel Noack, and Brian Canup

In addition to educating students on the ID law, residency requirements, and their voting rights, the Vote Everywhere Team also wants to purchase an additional voter ID printer, to facilitate easier access for students. They hope to locate it in a more convenient location for students, such as the Morgridge Center or the Memorial Union. By expanding access, they hope to simplify the process of acquiring voter ID for students.

On a broader scale, the members of the UW-Madison Vote Everywhere Team know this issue affects students throughout the state, not just on their campus. They have long-term plans of building a coalition of all UW schools, along with other community groups, to create a petition addressing how the voter ID law specifically targets students. Although they see it as unlikely at present, they ultimately want all UW student ID to qualify as voter ID.

Despite the difficulty of navigating the Wisconsin voting system, Brian feels it’s worth the effort. “People are trying to silence student voices, African-American voices, and voices of people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds,” he says. “It’s painful to work through, but if we just sit down and stay silent, they’ll keep on silencing us.”

About the Author

Emily Curran is the Communications and Development Manager of The Andrew Goodman Foundation. Emily holds a Ph.D. in History and Culture from Drew University, where she focused on twentieth-century American cultural history, culminating in a dissertation entitled, “Natural and Technological Wonders: Embracing Modernity at Carlsbad Caverns National Park.” She received her Bachelor’s degree in History and American Studies from Ramapo College, where she now teaches as an adjunct professor. Prior to joining AGF, she worked as the Visitor Services Coordinator at the Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms, and she remains an active volunteer with the museum.