Youth voters took to the polls by storm this November making for one of the highest turnouts in recent decades

Youth voters took to the polls by storm this November making for one of the highest turnouts in recent decades

Kayley Bell, a freshman at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and intern with the voter engagement coalition BadgersVote, spent her days leading up to the November 2022 election campaigning and canvassing.

On Election Day, Bell spent most of her day in Ward 57 at the Nicholas Recreation Center on UW–Madison’s campus, working the polls and running a voter ID print station through BadgersVote.

“I woke up at five in the morning to be at the Nick at 6 a.m. to set up, since I am a poll worker. And from 6 a.m. to gosh, I think 2 p.m. I was working the polls and doing a variety of tasks,” Bell said.

It is students like Bell who helped make a difference in youth voter turnout in the November midterm election. Historically, youth voters, or eligible voters under 30 years old, have made up a much smaller percentage than other age demographics on Election Day. This year, many noticed a big rise in youth engagement and voting turnout.

According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, also known as CIRCLE, the 2022 midterm election is estimated to have had the second-highest youth voter turnout in almost three decades. The highest turnout was in 2018 when about 31% of eligible voters under 30 years old cast a ballot.

On college and high school campuses across Wisconsin, students, faculty and organizations have been working to instill youth civic engagement and continue to increase the youth vote.

A look at youth turnout 

While turnout nationally may have been down from 2018, data from Dane County’s precinct results indicate a higher turnout in voters on UW–Madison’s campus than in previous elections.

Ward 57, which encircles southeast residence halls Sellery and Witte, had 52% more voters this November than in 2018. Similarly, Ward 61, which includes Bradley, Dejope, Kronshage, Leopold, Cole, Phillip, Humphrey and Jorns residence halls, saw a 28% increase in voter turnout.

The percentage of votes cast for Democratic Gov. Tony Evers also increased this election. In 2018, 76% of individuals in Ward 57 voted for Evers while 83% did in 2022. In Ward 61, 69% of people voted for Evers in 2018 and 85% in 2022.

According to CIRCLE, 70% of Wisconsin youth voted for Evers, while 28% voted for his Republican opponent Tim Michels.

Getting youth voters to polls

On Nov. 6, the last day of early voting, University of Wisconsin–Madison students waited in polling lines for hours, each one determined to cast their ballot.

Shelby Fosco, who has served five years on the UW–Madison voter engagement coalition BadgersVote, saw this engagement as a huge success for young voters and initiatives like BadgersVote.

“We had a full week of in-person absentee voting where we could see students getting ready to vote,” Fosco said. “They were voting with groups of friends, telling their friends to vote, and telling them where they could vote.”

BadgersVote is one of many voting initiatives on UW–Madison’s campus and across Wisconsin. Its purpose is to provide students with all the tools they need to participate in elections. Fosco says the overall goal for BadgersVote is to create a lifelong voter habit and commitment to civic engagement starting in college and continuing after graduation

Similar organizations, like The Campus Vote Project and the League of Women Voters, share this mission. These organizations have outreach programs not only on UW–Madison’s campus, but across the state of Wisconsin and the entire country.

The League of Women Voters sends volunteers to high school and college campuses to register individuals to vote. They also lead candidate forums to educate the youth on candidates and their policies. The Campus Vote Project hires students on college campuses across the state, then trains those students on election laws and registration. Student workers then use that training so they can improve election literacy in their campus communities.

These programs have continued to pop up on college campuses, and sometimes in high schools, to address the historically low voter turnout among 18-to 29-year-olds.

Molly Carmichael, communications manager for the League of Women Voters Wisconsin and UW–Madison alumna, remembers it being confusing knowing how and where to vote as an out-of-state student when she attended college.

“I was still registered back home at my parent’s house thinking, can I vote here [Wisconsin]? Does my out of state driver’s license work? Do I need to get something else?” Carmichael said.

These questions that Carmichael once asked herself are the exact questions that these organizations aim to answer. The initiatives also want to encourage students to participate in voting, in hopes that they will then encourage their own friends and peers.

“Our volunteers do a lot of work with some other great organizations like the Campus Vote Project, because it can be confusing as a student, and when you’re moving every single year.”

Noah Foster, the Wisconsin Deputy State Coordinator for the Campus Vote Project, thinks the messaging students are receiving on their campus frombecause of these organizations is inspiring the youth vote. 

And these three organizations are increasingly optimistic about their influence on getting youth voters to the polls. 

“I think young people realize that this is their future, and the way to have a voice in their future is to vote. And students are paying attention,” Fosco said.

What else brought young voters to the polls?

In addition to peer-to-peer encouragement and the tools their separate organizations provide, Carmichael, Foster and Fosco all believe that current issues like the overturning of Roe v. Wade and inaction on environmental policy have sparked more youth interest in politics.

“There are a lot of issues that college students cared about in this election,” Foster said. “Things like Roe v. Wade being overturned, a lot of anti-voter legislation and practices popping up across the country after 2020, and specifically Jan. 6th had a big effect, too, I think.”

In Wisconsin, new absentee ballot legislation was announced just before the midterm elections.

These nonpartisan organizations, however, are in place to help amplify youth voices regardless

of opinion or concern regarding those issues.

“We really try to show young voters the power that they have with their vote, connected to the issues that I matter to them. We want people to vote however their values align,” Carmichael said.

Still work to be done

Although this election showed impressive growth in youth voter turnout, organizers say there is plenty of room to increase engagement in the future. 

“Even though we sit here and we rave about how good the numbers were for youth voter turnout, because they were, that’s only if you’re looking at historical margins. If you look at just the actual numbers, it’s kind of scary,” Foster said.

Across the United States, CIRCLE estimated about 27% of youth between the ages of 18 and 29 cast a ballot in the 2022 midterm election. Votes cast by this age group made up about 12% of all votes in this election.

According to the U.S Census Bureau, voter turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds for the 2014 midterm was about 18%.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission has not yet released the official voter turnout statistics for the state, but CIRCLE researchers estimated about a 31% youth voter turnout in battleground states like Wisconsin.

The next general election, this one for the state Supreme Court, will take place this upcoming spring on April 4, and the work of all three organizations is far from over, as they continue to educate and register voters.

“It’s really important that all voters, including the youth, understand that the courts can really play a role in our everyday life. Just like the two issues I’ve brought up before, abortion access or environmental issues. The courts play a role in that,” Carmichael said. “I would love to see a great youth turnout this spring.”


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