Milwaukee College Women Influence Election
The 2012 race through their eyes
by Audrey Poston
Clipboard in hand, pens at the ready, UW-Milwaukee student Angela Lang halted other students as they made the trek along the sidewalk from UWM’s architecture building to Lapham Hall. All around her, music blared and vendors handed out free food and energy drinks, but she wasn’t interested in any of that. She had a bigger goal in mind: registering students to vote.
While some students brushed off her inquiries and others wended their way through the crowd, hoping to avoid voter registration at all costs, a few welcomed Lang’s overtures and eagerly registered, bringing them one step closer to voting in the Nov. 6 election.
Lang was one of a handful of organizers assisting with registration when the Rock the Vote bus made a stop at UWM in October as part of its cross-country tour. By that time, Lang – a member of the University of Wisconsin System’s United Council – had already spent weeks registering students across campus. As a member of the African-American and female communities, she said she got involved because those groups haven’t always had the right to vote, so she wanted to help young people, especially women, take advantage of that opportunity.
“If women show they’re a huge voting bloc, hopefully people will be like, ‘Okay, I need to listen to the women population and kind of act accordingly and think in their best interests,’” Lang said.
2012 saw Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin spark debate over “legitimate rape.” Richard Mourdock, a Republican Senate candidate from Indiana, also garnered voter antipathy when he said pregnancy resulting from rape was “something God intended.” Governor Mitt Romney used “binders full of women” to demonstrate his stance on female pay equity. As a result, women’s issues and, consequently, the women’s vote, became a major topic in the presidential election.
CNN exit pollsshowed that roughly 55 percent of women voted for President Barack Obama in 2012. Only 44 percent of women voted for Mitt Romney, demonstrating a Republican disconnect with a large number of female voters.
In Wisconsin, the percentages were even more disparate, with Obama winning 57 percent of the female vote and Romney 42 percent.
Obama also saw a large young voter turnout, with the CNN exit poll showing that 60 percent of 18 to 29 year olds voted for the president, while only 37 percent supported Romney.
UWM Political Science Professor Kathleen Dolan said these statistics place young women in an interesting position. Through a process called micro-slicing, which looks at narrowly defined demographics, young women are a group Democrats particularly target. But do they affect elections any more than anyone else?
If enough young women vote, then yes, according to Dolan.
“If they vote in ways that are consistent with the gender gap in politics in that women are more likely to vote Democratic than Republican, then they can make a difference in a particular direction by voting or failing to vote,” Dolan said. “So it is the sort of untapped potential where they can make the greatest difference.”
Getting out the vote
Laurie Marks, the director of UWM’s Center for Volunteerism and Student Involvement, said the center helped obtain a $1,000 grant from the Campus Election Engagement Projectto help increase voter awareness at UWM.
Marks said the center also spearheaded a deputy registrar training session, which allowed students to take a class teaching them how to register people to vote. She said 33 individuals signed up for the class, including 23 women.
Samantha Edquist, a psychology intern with the Women’s Resource Center, took the two-hour class and passed the test to become a deputy registrar. Until this year, Edquist said she had never been politically active, so registering students to vote helped her get involved and informed.
Sitting at a WRC table in the Union, Edquist said she saw a good response from students, as some were turned off by the Democratic or Republican-specific groups around campus and gravitated toward the WRC’s non-partisan stance.
Other non-partisan groups were also registering student voters, including Lang’s United Council and the League of Young Voters. Tiara Williamson was one of their volunteers.
“We go all over Milwaukee,” Williamson said. “We’ll be out from 8:00 in the morning until 8:00 at night.”
Williamson said she and other volunteers even went to bars and clubs to register voters, often staying out until 1:00 a.m. While she said the group usually had more luck registering on college campuses, they did get some response at the clubs, despite the loud music and inebriated registrants.
Meantime, the College Democrats at UWM faced challenges unique to the UW System’s only urban campus. Because UWM is a large commuter school, College Dem member Colleen Cullen said it’s hard to plan events because the group never knows when students will be on campus. To combat this problem, they hold events on different days at different times and try to make them more social and provide incentives for participating.
However, Cullen and other female members of the College Democrats, Oby Nwabuzor and Kirsten Polley, said the difficulty in organizing can often be attributed to student apathy regarding not only the election, but politics in general.
“I literally was telling students, ‘Yeah, your PELL grants could be taken away,’ Nwabuzor said. “I know they’re on FAFSA and all that other stuff and they’re like, ‘Oh, okay, I know that,’ and just keep going on their way. They know what could happen, but they really don’t care.”
Republican voter Melissa Gauger agreed. While there are exceptions, she said, judging from Facebook, her friends were just ready for the election to be over.
However, not everyone agreed with this assessment, with other voter registration groups around campus reporting a good turnout.
“You know what’s interesting about this election is that it’s a presidential one, so you always get a kick off of more folks interested,” said Nneka Akubeze, the southeastern field coordinator for United Council. “They’re like, ‘Every four years I should probably care.’”
Because of the recent recall election, Akubeze said a lot of people were already paying attention to politics and thinking about the decisions they wanted to make in the Nov. election.
Akubeze’s observation proved to be correct. According to Edison Research, 18 to 29 year olds made up 19 percent of the country’s electorate in this presidential election, a one percentage point increase from 2008.
To vote or not to vote
Despite the election results, there were young women who made the decision not to vote. Cathy Seasholes, the director of UWM’s Women’s Resource Center, said some choose not to vote because they’re still learning and feel like they don’t have enough information to make an informed decision. She said college is often the time when women assert more independence and individuality and start asking themselves what they think and what they believe.
Junior and business major Brittany Hohler decided not to vote because she said she has no interest in politics. She said many of her politically active friends have tried to get her involved, but she just can’t stay focused and has a hard time understanding. Hohler said she hopes to become more politically active as she gets older and learns through her own experiences.
“I feel like right now it’s just I don’t really understand a lot of it,” Hohler said. “I feel like a lot of politics you figure out on your own where you stand and what you believe in.”
There were also a number of other young women who had already made up their minds and decided to vote.
“People complain about change, but they don’t try to do anything. If you disagree with something, you should at least stand up and try to make a point.”
That was the rationale senior history student and Obama supporter Ashley Jones gave for voting. Other young women also agreed voting was important, citing various reasons.
Sophomore Andjela Babic, who voted third party, said voting is a right that people fought for, so she wanted to take advantage of that. Nwabuzor agreed.
“I don’t understand why people can fight so hard for something that you didn’t have and now, today, modern day people aren’t taking it seriously,” she explained.
Elizabeth Werren, a sophomore and Romney supporter, said voting prevents younger voters from being marginalized.
“If we didn’t vote, then the older people would be deciding what we have in our future,” Werren said. “We should decide what we have in our future.”
Akubeze said voting is important because it helps people recognize the power they have, as well as the power to empower others.
Young women and the political process
Young women voters take that power and influence into consideration when voting. Colleen Cullen of the College Democrats said that, while some women can get discouraged looking at CSPAN and seeing that, other than a few women and minorities, most of the legislators are white men, there is reason to be hopeful, especially considering the number of political advertisements that were aimed at women.
“I think more so now than ever, people are actually paying attention to the women’s vote,” she said.
Lang took into consideration the power of the entire UW System.
“If you just think of Wisconsin in general, or just the UW System, that’s 26 colleges, that’s 180,000 students itself,” Lang said. “And that’s just in Wisconsin. Imagine if all students across the nation voted.”
However, not everyone is so optimistic. Even though she voted, Babic said she feels pushed aside by politicians because of her age. Werren was also skeptical of her power and said that people would be foolish to think their words and opinions carry much influence.
“When you see Facebook statuses, that one Facebook status isn’t going to influence other people,” Werren said. “You ranting about something isn’t going to make a bunch of other people vote in the same way.”
Carrie Smith, a sophomore majoring in social work, said she voted for Obama, but that she didn’t think her vote mattered that much.
“I feel like no matter who you are, you only have so much power,” Smith said. “And I feel like women just have less because of the way our society is.”
Political divide over the issues
With a commanding majority of women voting for the Democratic Party, the divide between female conservatives and liberals is larger than ever, and women’s issues and other social issues are largely to blame.
While liberal female voters said education, health care and the economy were important issues to them during this election, they overwhelming cited women’s reproductive health issues and gender pay equality as key determinants in who they voted for.
Student Ashley Jones said she is pro-choice. Even though she’s never had to make the decision about getting an abortion, Jones said she knows other young women have, and that she would like that option open to her if the need should ever arise.
Kirsten Polley, another member of the College Democrats, said she also thought it was important to let women make their own health decisions.
“This [election] could affect your choice to be able to choose what happens to your body and it shouldn’t be a congressperson that’s deciding that for you, whether they are a congresswoman or a congressman,” Polley said.
Sophomore Melissa Gauger, who voted for Mitt Romney, said social issues are important to her too. Although she dislikes abortion, she said she has nothing wrong with women taking birth control or gays getting married. She just doesn’t think these social issues should be the focal point of a political campaign. She said she thinks women are often misinformed or choose to go with the flow and vote solely on the women’s rights issue without considering other important issues.
“I don’t know when sex became this huge political topic,” Gauger said. “I feel like, with this election, what’s more important is economic issues.”
Freshman Rebecca Dickmann, who also voted for Romney, agreed. “I know most people don’t feel that way because they think he’s [Romney’s] like against women, but I’m just more for getting the economy back on track,” she said.
Some liberal young women find it hard to believe that other young women vote for Republicans because they do not find them relatable or because they feel like the Republican Party is working against the best interests of women.
“I feel like Republicans don’t really have compassion for others,” Polley explained. “And, as a woman, I feel like we kind of have a little bit more to give.”
Speaking before the presidential election, Jones said, “I just feel like Romney’s going to set us back. I feel like he wants women out of the workforce and he expects us all just to fall back in line.”
Cullen said she was surprised that any woman would vote for a Republican because of the sexist remarks made by some particular candidates.
Freshman Taylor Haltner agreed with Cullen, saying, “At least Obama can deliver a speech without insulting half the American population.”
UWM Political Science Professor Kathleen Dolan said this liberal stance can be referred to as cross pressure, which means there is some aspect to an individual that leads people to expect them to align themselves in a particular way. Dolan said a gay Republican is another classic example of this.
“The general sort of short answer that we give in political science is that people who experience cross pressure on sort of different identities are not defining themselves by this identity as directly as we might in observing them,” Dolan said.
In other words, Republican women do not view their gender as the most important aspect when determining their political beliefs. Issues like the economy or religion could be viewed as more important, as they are with Gauger, who said the economy, as well as her pro-life stance because of her religious upbringing, were her most important election issues.
Cross pressure even forces some conservative women to keep their political beliefs a secret, even from their closest friends. Outside the polling area in UWM’s Sandburg Residence Halls, junior Samantha Geyer was hesitant to mention that she voted for Romney. Both of her roommates were Obama supporters, so Geyer said she had spent the whole election season pretending to be a Democrat in order to avoid their ridicule. Dickmann also reluctantly acknowledged her conservative beliefs.
“I don’t really like telling anyone my political views because I know all my friends are Democrats,” Dickmann said.
Although she is a Republican, Gauger said she doesn’t even think the Republican Party believes she and other women are important, a complaint Republican politicians will have to address in future elections.
“I think, with conservatives, the stereotype is that it’s the man and then his woman is below him,” Gauger said. “I feel like a lot of women just don’t think of voting conservative because they don’t reach out to them like Obama does. He just seems so much more attractive. You know, not physically, but, if you’re a woman, it just seems like a better decision to vote for him than Mitt Romney.”
Looking toward the future
Dolan said, for most people, politics is what she calls a minority activity. People usually do not participate very much, and if they do, it is usually just by voting. However, groups like the College Democrats and United Council said the election is not the end of their political participation. Now that the politicians are elected, the College Dem ladies said voters have to put pressure on those representatives, whether at the local, state or national level, to make policy decisions.
Akubeze said the key is to get voters to remember how excited they were about voting and translate that to new endeavors and new issues.
“What’s really great is that what we’re building is a base,” Akubeze said. “When you’ve got a collection of people around one great idea, that means you have a base of people to move them [politicians] to do something else.”