Campus support for student voting under new Wisconsin Voter ID law

One of our missions as an American educational institution is to prepare and encourage everyone who passes through the university to be an active, engaged citizen. Voting is one important aspect of this. It is essential to our democratic form of government and a responsibility that comes with citizenship.

UW–Madison has an obligation to ensure that our students have an awareness of and access to the electoral process, particularly since many students will have their first opportunity to vote during their time on campus. During the passage of Wisconsin’s voter ID law in 2011, we actively worked with legislators to ensure that colleges and universities had the ability to issue voter ID cards to our students.

Despite being passed in 2011, implementation of the voter ID law was put on hold for several years as court challenges were settled. Last March, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lower court’s decision to uphold the law, and the first statewide elections in which voters in Wisconsin are required to show an ID will be held February 16 (Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice primary) and April 5 (Spring Election and Presidential Preference Primary) this year.

Our students who are Wisconsin residents will be able to use their Wisconsin driver’s license or their non-driver Wisconsin ID. A passport is also valid and can be used by U.S. citizens from outside Wisconsin. For those non-Wisconsin students who are U.S. citizens but who don’t have a passport, the university will provide a voter ID card that complies with state law.

Among our non-Wisconsin U.S. citizens (undergraduate, graduate and professional), the actual number who need a card is likely to be relatively small. Most graduate and professional students move to Wisconsin and have a Wisconsin driver’s license or other valid ID. Some out-of-state residents will want to vote in their home district by absentee ballot. And experience tells us that — whatever we and others do to encourage voting — a substantial share of students will not choose to vote. Based on voting records from the most recent presidential election, we estimate the largest possible number of students needing a voter ID is 6,400 (out of 43,000) students, and the actual number could be much lower.

Over the past several years, we have been working to determine the best way to ensure that our students are aware of the need for an ID to vote and to educate them about what forms of ID are valid. We have built an infrastructure to issue voter ID cards that comply with the new law and prepared a significant marketing and communications initiative to educate our students about how they can obtain this voter ID card if needed.

Some have argued that we should not issue separate voter IDs, but should change our official student ID, the Wiscard, to make it compliant with voter ID requirements and reissue it to all of our students. The cost of this is simply prohibitive and it would create enormous inconvenience to ask all students (most of whom don’t need a voter-compliant Wiscard) to acquire new cards. An alternative suggestion is to provide a voter ID-compliant Wiscard to incoming students (i.e., new freshmen and transfer students), as well as those who request one, so that over time all Wiscards become voter ID-compliant.

Our Wiscard currently does not include a student signature and it is good for five years, as indicated on the card by its expiration date. A voter ID must include a signature and can only be valid for two years. If we were to make the Wiscard voter ID-compliant, we would have to add a signature and a second date indicating when the card expires as a voter ID card. Our Wiscard is also very expensive relative to the voter ID, because it contains quite a bit of embedded technology that allows it to be used as a debit card for purchases as well as an access card to specific buildings for each student.

We’ve carefully considered the idea of changing our Wiscard so that it also functions as a voter ID card. However, this change comes with start-up costs to modify our current system and ongoing administrative costs associated with re-provisioning security privileges and reissuing cards more frequently. For these reasons and others I’ll detail below, we’ve made the decision to continue issuing a separate voter ID card through the upcoming November elections.

First, the legal, legislative and regulatory environment surrounding what constitutes a valid voter ID card continues to be somewhat uncertain and may well change, potentially rendering any changes to the existing Wiscard unnecessary or inappropriate. A lawsuit questioning whether the Wisconsin voter ID law is too restrictive is pending in federal court. The outcome may change which types of ID are valid in the coming years. In addition, the state’s Government Accountability Board (which has set rules related to what types of IDs meet the requirements of the law) will be dissolved on June 30 and replaced by separate elections and ethics commissions. The new Elections Commission could issue new rules and other guidance that would determine what constitutes a valid ID for voting purposes.

Second, voter ID-compliant Wiscards would not resolve the problem of students needing to understand and make the effort to get a new ID card. Those students who need a voter ID will have to get such a card, whether it is a separate ID or a compliant Wiscard. And both the separate voter ID card and the compliant Wiscards would expire after two years as a valid voter ID, so students would have to recognize this and make an effort to get a new card in any case, regardless of the nature of that card. In short, the “hassle factor” of having a separate card doesn’t go away by making the Wiscard into a voter ID card.

In addition, because new voter ID regulations have been tied up in legal challenges for the past five years, we have not yet held an election in which identification was required. We designed our voter ID process carefully and plan to make extensive efforts to let students know what they need in order to vote in the upcoming April primary or the November general election. We propose to carry out these efforts and evaluate how well this process has worked after the November elections through a survey of our students. The results of this survey will help us do an even better job in the future of making sure that students have the information and access they need to vote.

It is worth noting that this is not a decision unique to UW-Madison. Every other college and university in Wisconsin is grappling with the same set of questions, and the vast majority of schools have chosen to issue separate cards for voting, due to some of the same considerations outlined above.

At this point, we have done an immense amount of prep work to make voter ID cards widely available on campus. We are currently asking every person who receives a new Wiscard (and who is a U.S. citizen and not from Wisconsin) whether they also want a voter ID, informing them that this will be needed if they wish to vote in Wisconsin in upcoming elections. Every incoming freshman and transfer student will be offered a voter ID card if they need one. We are also committed to continuing the previous campus-wide efforts to publicize the availability of the voter ID card through our dedicated voter ID website, video, social media and other communications to students.

To provide students ample opportunity to obtain a voter ID card, our Wiscard office located in Union South will have extended hours prior to the elections and on election days. In addition, the campus is purchasing additional equipment that can produce voter ID cards and will have staff operating that equipment at Gordon Dining and Event Center on election days during this year’s April and November elections to make it easier for students voting on that part of campus to get a voter ID card immediately should they need one.

I take the decisions about how to facilitate voting for our students under the new voter ID law very seriously. I appreciate the concern over student access to voting that has stimulated the discussion about whether this is best done through separate voter ID cards or through changes to the Wiscard. But I believe that continuing to issue a separate ID to our students for voting purposes, as most other institutions are doing, is the best decision at this time.

As always, I welcome your feedback on this or any issue. Please email me at