Assembly Republicans want fewer college students to vote in Wisconsin, critics say

University of Wisconsin-Madison students Jump Around between the 3rd and 4th quarters durning a college football game between the Georgia Southern Eagles and the Wisconsin Badgers on September 16th, 2023 at Barry Alvarez field at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, WI. (Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire) (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

A bill introduced in December by Republicans in the Wisconsin State Assembly would require the University of Wisconsin System to send information to its students who come from outside the state on how to vote in their home states.

The bill, opponents argue, is intended to tip elections toward Republicans in the crucial swing state.

Assembly Bill 817 requires the board of regents of the University of Wisconsin System to automatically send applications for absentee ballots to first-year students from outside Wisconsin, along with clear instructions on how the application should be completed.

The bill requires the regents to develop and implement policies to comply with the requirement, to review those policies every two years, and to submit an annual report to the Wisconsin State Legislature on their implementation.

“College students from out of state typically move back to their home state after graduating and do not stay here in Wisconsin,” the lawmakers who wrote the bill argued in a sponsorship memo. “Students are typically more involved in their home state where they grew up and have ties to. This bill would simply require the UW System to give students information on voting absentee so they are able to vote in their home state.”

Census Bureau data shows Wisconsin had the highest turnout of voters aged 18-24 of any U.S. state during the November 2022 midterm elections, with 48.7% of citizens in that age group, or about 286,000 people, casting ballots. In 2020, President Joe Biden beat former President Donald Trump by only about 20,000 votes in Wisconsin, showing that any slight change in voting patterns could have enormous consequences.

More than 162,000 students were enrolled at the University of Wisconsin System’s 13 universities during fall 2023, according to the university. Although it’s unclear how many of those are from outside the state, at the university’s largest campus, in Madison, out-of-state students made up more than half of the approximately 9,000 new freshmen and transfer students admitted in fall 2023.

Rep. Clint Moses, one of the 16 Republicans who sponsored the bill, told Wisconsin Public Radio that is concerned about students who he feels don’t have a stake in the local communities where they’d be voting.

“Why should a student be voting on these when they are not gonna have any of the impact of it? They’re not paying any of the property taxes in our area,” Moses said.

“There’s no property ownership requirement to be a voter. And we certainly shouldn’t pretend that there is one for college students,” Democratic state Sen. Mark Spreitzer told WPR.

A political science professor at UW–Madison, Barry Burden, laid out what he believes the sponsors of A.B. 817 intend the bill to do. “If the goal was simply to educate students about their voting rights, then it would present to them the whole set of options about how they could vote both in state or out of state,” Burden told WPR. “But this is really drawing their attention to the options to vote out of state.”