Students turn out to vote in large numbers

On-campus residents record highest voter turnout in Eau Claire


Photo by Cade Fisher

This spring’s Wisconsin Supreme Court election matched 90% of voter turnout of November midterm election.

UW-Eau Claire students recorded the highest voter turnout in the city in the April 4 election, increasing 11 times compared to spring 2022. 

According to the unofficial election results, of the 77 voting wards in Eau Claire, Ward 20 had the highest voter turnout with 882 ballots cast. Ward 20 contains all of the Upper Campus student residence halls.

Voter turnout increased drastically from last spring when Ward 20 recorded only 76 votes. In the last spring election with the Wisconsin Supreme Court on the ticket in 2019, Ward 20 counted 158 votes. 

This spring’s Wisconsin Supreme Court election matched 90% of the voter turnout of the midterm election last November, when 971 Ward 20 residents cast a ballot, according to unofficial results. 

According to Rodd Freitag, professor of political science at UW-Eau Claire, to have this high of a turnout for a spring election is surprising, especially among young adults.

“It is unusual. More obscure elections don’t usually see younger voters turn out,” Freitag said. “So the jump from an understandably low number last year to an extraordinarily high number, it’s very striking.”

Freitag said the Wisconsin Supreme Court race between liberal Janet Protasiewicz and conservative Dan Kelly was consequential because it determined the ideological balance of the court, which likely motivated more people to vote.

“It was an important race hinging on issues that I think are particularly important to younger voters,” Freitag said. “But that’s not the end of the story, because that doesn’t necessarily translate to higher turnout. There must have been some organized campaigning targeting students to put this on their radar and inform them of the issues and how to vote.”

One of those organizations that campaigned on campus was UW-Eau Claire’s chapter of College Democrats. Matthew Lehner, a second-year political science student and president of College Democrats, said the organization was campaigning for Protasiewicz, but also providing information on how to vote on campus.

“The thing about students is they know the issues that are prevalent today,” Lehner said. “It’s just about getting information out to those folks about how to vote and the process to vote on campus.“

Student voters in Ward 20 overwhelmingly supported Protasiewicz with about 87% of the vote. Ultimately, Protasiewicz won the race with 56% of votes statewide. 

Lehner said he believes abortion was one of the issues that drove young adults to the polls after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned federal abortion protection in Jackson Women’s Health Organization v. Dobbs. In Wisconsin, that put a ban passed in 1849 back into effect.

“The biggest thing we see post Jackson v. Dobbs is that students are really motivated by the abortion issue, I think that is why students are turning out,” Lehner said. “A lot of the people in that line were women and they were there to take back their rights.”

Wisconsin’s supreme court is expected to determine whether to uphold Wisconsin’s abortion ban in the upcoming term. 

Freitag said this election was a combination of issues that were important to young voters and efforts to involve student voices.

“The groundwork existed. Groups didn’t have to convince young people these were important issues, these were already important issues to them,” Freitag said. “But when the vote was, who the candidates were, what their positions were on the issues, it helps when a student group communicates that with other students.” 

According to Freitag, this increase in voter turnout is part of a larger trend across the country. Lehner said it is a sign that young adults and Generation Z voters are making a difference.

“Gen Z realizes we have the numbers and can make a real impact at the ballot box,” Lehner said. “We want to have a better future for ourselves. To do that we need to solve these issues and the way to do that is to elect leaders who are going to get the work done.”

Freitag said he expects turnout rates to recede eventually, but the trend of young people voting could be a sign of a civically involved generation of voters.

“I don’t think turnout rates will always be quite so high, but for the time being these are issues that are important to young voters and they see that their actions have results,” Freitag said. “The turnout was significant enough that it made a difference in the outcome and it is going to make a difference in the state.”

Mohr can be reached at [email protected].