From its start as a small group of staff and students at the Morgridge Center for Public Service, to its growth in 2020 to over 60 people, faculty chair of the BadgersVote Coalition Kathy Cramer says the coalition’s goal remains true to its founding creeds.
“The mission has always been the same: make sure students have all the information they need in order to vote and to also promote a very strong belief in democracy and the importance of students having their voices heard,” Cramer says.
While its goals are the same, how BadgersVote carries out this mission has evolved since its original conception. As the fall semester following the 2020 election draws to a close, several members of the BadgersVote Coalition reflect on the organization’s growth, past successes and bright future.
Comprised of individuals, from units and departments across campus and the city of Madison, BadgersVote is a campus-wide initiative that strives to provide University of Wisconsin–Madison students with everything they need to know in order to participate in their elections through voter education campaigns, information events and other student-oriented opportunities to drive student civic and voter engagement.
The origins of the BadgersVote Coalition stretch back to 2013, says Megan Miller, the former assistant director of civic engagement and communications for the Morgridge Center.
Miller, who worked for the Morgridge Center for 10 years, says the Morgridge Center began emphasizing the importance of voting with the arrival of Kathy Cramer as the new faculty director in 2014.
As a political scientist entering the position, Cramer says she wanted to bring a new emphasis on civic engagement to the Morgridge Center.
“During that time, one of the things that was really important to me was engaging in just doing more around student voter engagement at the Morgridge Center and the staff members there [at] the time were really into it, too … So we started to do a lot of student voter engagement initiatives,” Cramer says.
With Cramer as a driving force of civic engagement programming, Director of the Elections Research Center Barry Burden says the next step towards the BadgersVote Coalition’s creation was its participation in the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge in 2016. UW–Madison joined 575 higher education institutions across the nation to promote student voter engagement.
Burden says the nationwide effort to increase voting efforts made an impact on campus, but it did not spur the creation of an official infrastructure to promote student voter engagement. Building off ALL IN’s momentum, Miller says the Andrew Goodman Foundation joined the ranks of the Morgridge Center partners in 2016, placing paid student interns in positions on campus to increase voter engagement and civic awareness.
Later in 2017, the future of BadgersVote took a major step forward when UW–Madison joined the Big 10 Voting Challenge. Spearheaded by political science professor Edie Goldberg from the University of Michigan, the Big 10 Voting Challenge created a contest between all universities in the conference to get the highest and most improved student voter turnout.
Chancellor Rebecca Blank signed on to the challenge and appointed Cramer to lead the university’s efforts. Cramer created an advisory board, known as the Big 10 Voting Challenge Committee, to help determine initiatives with funds allocated to the challenge. Cramer and others eventually built out this advisory board into a broader coalition across campus.
“I think [the Big 10 Voting Challenge] was incredibly important in terms of pushing us at UW–Madison to build a coalition of people from all across campus who could help advance that work,” Miller says. “So rather than just living in the Morgridge Center, we brought in faculty, we brought in students, we brought in staff to meet regularly with a shared goal of increasing voter turnout.”
Taking the reins from Cramer in 2018 before the midterm elections, Miller and Burden co-chaired the Big 10 Voting Challenge Committee to continue building out the coalition. Burden says the committee became the infrastructure of BadgersVote by bringing independent operators together to create cohesive messages.
Instead of completing separate work and bombarding students with different messages, the committee worked to streamline all student voter information to vote.wisc.edu.
“It became just a really tremendous resource for allowing all of those groups to communicate in a regular way to have open lines to connect with one another to make sure that they’re coordinating on messaging activities as the campaign unfolds,” Burden says.
Launching off the energy from the Big 10 Voting Challenge, Miller says the BadgersVote Coalition officially formed as a permanent structure of the organization following the 2018 midterms. Today, Cramer serves as the faculty co-chair and Morgridge Center professional staff members Cristina Johnson and Zachery Holder serve as the other co-chairs.
Overs the Years
Since its founding, Burden says BadgersVote accumulated more funding for voting initiatives. Coalition members took an entrepreneurial approach to obtain funds — receiving grants and other financial support to build on the budget provided for the Big 10 Voting Challenge.
Additionally, Burden says one of the largest changes in BadgersVote operations has been the increase in student involvement. The BadgersVote Student Coalition consists of interns housed in the Morgridge Center who work for a variety of organizations, including the Andrew Goodman Foundation, the League of Women Voters, Campus Election Engagement Project (CEEP) and several other community partnerships.
“Staff members don’t have the time to do all things that need to be done and don’t have the perspective that students do,” Burden says. “So, I think putting students front and center has been really helpful, and it has been something that has increased with each election cycle.”
Big 10 Voting Challenge Intern Tamia Fowlkes joined the Morgridge Center and the BadgersVote Coalition in 2019 as an intern with the Andrew Goodman Foundation. Since joining the team, Fowlkes says one of the biggest evolutions in BadgersVote was its use of social media. When she first joined, BadgersVote only had a Twitter account with three to four tweets.
Today, BadgersVote has accounts on Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and Instagram — where they reach nearly 1,000 engagements per post. BadgersVote interns also launched a YouTube channel and a podcast in 2020. Fowlkes says BadgersVote hired more interns to increase its presence on social media and across campus communications.
“We just really built out a lot of our networking and our concept of what BadgersVote means on this campus,” Fowlkes says. “It’s just been super fun and exciting to see it grow and develop over the past year and a half.”
In addition to heightened student involvement, Cramer says the breadth of the people involved has increased exponentially. Not only is there a wide range of students and university representatives from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds, community members are now included in the coalition, including the City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl and other staff in that office.
While part of BadgersVote’s mission is to ensure students know how to register, get their voter ID and engage in the voting process, Cramer says the coalition’s growth exemplifies its desire to encourage all forms of civic engagement and promote a strong belief in democracy — with young people at the center of its future.
“We realized that it wasn’t just presidential elections, or even major elections like presidential or midterm elections that we cared about, but all elections relevant to students, including local and ASM elections,” Cramer says.
BadgersVote evolved to meet the challenges of the global coronavirus pandemic. Burden says while most activities in 2018 were face-to-face, these types of events were not possible in 2020.
“[BadgersVote] really had to pivot over the summer and figure out how to be effective at a time when the regular kinds of strategies we’d reverie to just weren’t available,” Burden says.
The BadgersVote’s pandemic spurred positive change for the coalition. BadgersVote emerged with a more sophisticated social media platform to really amplify their messaging, Burden says.
Miller says student creativity drove their social media presence, and she says the coalition cannot underscore the importance of student interns in the 2020 election initiatives. With students doing groundwork to build on the strong base provided by faculty and staff, Fowlkes believes BadgersVote has the potential to create a civic engagement culture on campus.
“It’s really exciting for us as students who are genuinely excited and engaged and passionate about politics to be able to bring BadgersVote into our classrooms or into our youth groups to make people more aware of those issues,” Fowlkes says.
Looking to the future, Cramer believes 2020 provides a solid foundation to build off student energy and the campus community’s desire to be civically engaged. Cramer says the addition of Zachery Holder’s position to the Morgridge Center as voter engagement and civic learning coordinator opens up new opportunities to civically engage students year round.
Burden says the Civic Action Plan adopted by Chancellor Blank in 2019 will also push the campus community toward increased civic engagement programs and awareness.
“Whether it’s things in the classroom or extracurricular service learning and professional development opportunities, in all of those places there’s an opportunity for students to have a say and be involved in civic life, and that includes voting,” Burden says.
Fowlkes believes the faculty involvement and commitment to increase student voting initiatives is unique to UW–Madison. In the future, Fowlkes sees the BadgersVote Coalition continuing to be a testament to the Wisconsin Idea — providing service to the community and finding innovative ways to engage citizens.
As the coalition continues to grow, Cramer says its successes will always go back to the true roots of BadgersVote: the campus community.
“The success of the coalition and the number of people involved is just a positive indication of the culture that we have on campus, that in a time of a pandemic, this many people are coming together to try to carry off an election smoothly,” Cramer says. “It really just says a lot about our campus.”