Democratic hopes for toppling Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in next month's recall election may hinge on a strong turnout from young voters, who came out in heavy numbers for President Barack Obama in 2008 but were less active when Walker was elected two years later.
Both sides of the June 5 recall pitting Walker against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett are focused on get-out-the-vote efforts because of a low number of undecided voters. But tapping into college-aged voters, traditionally a strong well of support for Democrats, is proving difficult because of a new law making it tougher for those students to cast ballots and the fact that many will have left college campuses for the summer by election time.
"It is a challenge," said Andrew Suchorski, a 20-year-old Marquette University student and chairman of the College Democrats of Wisconsin. "Anyone that would tell you it's not a challenge is lying to you. But that doesn't mean it isn't something that can't be overcome."
The recall against Walker, only the third of a governor in U.S. history, was spurred by the bill he pushed through the Legislature that effectively ended collective bargaining rights for most state workers. But his budget passed last year also cut funding to the University of Wisconsin System by $250 million, or 9 percent, and cut technical colleges by $72 million, or about 30 percent.
Those cuts targeting education, together with reductions he made for K-12 public schools, also fueled the recall effort.
College Democrats have held 36 events across the state, primarily disseminating information about how to register to vote and cast absentee ballots in the recall election. The state Democratic Party has emailed all 181,000 students in the UW System with information about how to register and vote absentee. It also plans to knock college students' doors on election day to remind them to vote, said party spokeswoman Melanie Conklin.
Still, hurdles remain.
"Students aren't as engaged as they probably should be," Sienna Kossman, a 20-year-old UW-Oshkosh student, said Tuesday. "I think when a lot of people go home for the summer, even if they are registered to vote here, they won't take (absentee voting) into consideration."
Republicans also have an aggressive campaign to get necessary information to college voters, said Jeff Snow, chairman of the UW-Madison College Republicans.
"I think students are pretty aware and I think that Gov. Walker will do very well among student voters," said Snow, a 20-year-old entering his junior year. "This has been a pretty historic couple of years in the state of Wisconsin politically."
Wisconsin traditionally has had one of the highest young voter turnouts. In 2008, 58 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted, according to the Washington-based Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement. The group helped fuel Obama's 14-point win in Wisconsin, but the turnout was less enthusiastic in 2010 when Walker beat Barrett the first time they faced each other.
In 2008, 21 percent of Wisconsin voters were between the ages of 18 and 29 and of those, 65 percent voted for Obama. In 2010, only 15 percent of voters were between 18 and 29 and just 55 percent voted for Barrett.
Barrett lost to Walker by 5 points that year; young voters was the only age demographic he won.
Former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, who was ousted in the 2010 election, planned to help voters register and cast early ballots Tuesday in a Madison suburb. And the progressive advocacy organization Democracy for America said it was focusing its get-out-the-vote efforts on Madison, Eau Claire and Racine.
All three cities have a significant college-aged population. UW's main campus is in Madison and it also has one in Eau Claire. UW-Parkside is located in between Racine and Kenosha.
One of the biggest obstacles to students voting this year is the new requirement that they live where they intend to vote for at least 28 consecutive days, compared to 10 days under the old law. For the recall, that means they have to vote based on their address as of May 8 or earlier.
Students who have established a campus address can either vote there in person or absentee if they are away for the summer, according to the state elections board. A student who is registered to vote at their home address, but lives on campus during the summer, may reregister and vote from campus as long as they meet the 28-day residency requirement.
Kossman, who is living on campus this summer in Oshkosh and working as an office assistant, said she planned to vote in person on June 5 for Barrett.
"I've been following the whole recall process very closely. I have not been a fan of Walker from the start as a college student," she said. "It doesn't seem like he cares too much about the higher education process."
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