Chippewa Valley Votes registers voters
Carol Craig discusses the formation of Chippewa Valley Votes, an Eau Claire-area nonpartisan organization that works to register voters. The organization has registered more than 1,900 voters. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

Nonpartisan group aims to fill the voter literacy gap by providing information, help to all voters. 

For more coverage designed to help you cast a ballot this fall, see our special page on the election: Your Vote Matters

While teaching an American government course to students at Chippewa Valley Technical College in Eau Claire four years ago, Carol Craig was surprised at how little most of them knew about voting in elections. 

“So many of them had no knowledge of the voting process,” recalled Craig, a former employee of the technical college and Eau Claire school board president. “I was taken aback.”

Craig decided to change that. She connected with a group of volunteers and in 2017 they organized a nonpartisan voter registration effort, Chippewa Valley Votes

“For many young adults, no one had ever talked to them about the voting process,” Craig said. “When you think about how important it is for us to have an informed citizenry, that is a concern.”

Three years later, as another presidential election nears, Chippewa Valley Votes members spent Tuesday — National Voter Registration Day — staffing booths at L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library in downtown Eau Claire and at the nearby Ramone’s Ice Cream Parlor, registering more voters. The group has registered more than 1,900 voters. 

Since its inception, the organization has continued to grow and expand its reach beyond schools. Soon volunteers began popping up at community events and gatherings in the Eau Claire area, informing voters about why voting matters and registering them to vote. The group has about 75 members. 

Volunteers explain how to overcome such voter registration hurdles as change of address, where to vote, and how to participate in the absentee ballot process. They also work with local election clerks to further voter registration efforts. 

“Any time there is a public venue, you can probably find us there,” Craig said.  

Hosting in-person, voter-registration events since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has been a challenge, Craig said. The group held a couple in-person voter registration events during the summer but turnout was relatively low, she said.  

Craig worries about the lack of in-person voter registration efforts in this election year in which turnout is projected to be especially high, and when a record number of people are voting by absentee ballot. To offset its lack of a public presence this year, Chippewa Valley Votes is focusing on reaching prospective voters through Facebook, text messages, and emails.

Chippewa Valley Votes conducts a series of voter registration and education efforts. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

“It has been a little awkward,” she said, noting that directing people through the voting process and to the My Vote Wisconsin website, where they can register, has proven challenging at times. 

Besides registering voters, group members also are fielding many questions regarding absentee ballots, Craig said. 

“There are multiple different ways people can vote, and we are letting them know about that,” she said. 

There are three ways people in Wisconsin can vote. They include: voting in-person on election day,  voting by absentee ballot prior to election day, and voting by absentee ballot on election day by returning the ballot to your designated polling location.

Voting in person on Nov. 3 is the traditional way of casting ballots, but concerns about COVID-19 have significantly reduced the number of people who wish to vote using this method. Staffing voting sites with enough workers was difficult during the April election because of fears of contracting the virus.

Because of in-person voting concerns related to the virus, Wisconsin voters requested a record number of absentee ballots for the April election and have already requested more than 1 million for November contests. 

Early voting in Wisconsin occurs at designated election sites and will happen from Oct. 20 to Nov. 1. The effort is intended to make it easier for people to vote, and the method has grown in popularity. 

For all questions related to voting in Wisconsin, visit MyVote.wi.gov

Because the pandemic has limited opportunities to interact with potential voters in person, Craig said it’s difficult to determine whether the number of people seeking to register to vote is higher than previous years. But interest in the Nov. 3 election seems to be high, she said. 

Each time she works to help register voters, Craig said she is reminded of the importance of that work. The reason she and other Chippewa Valley Votes members continue to work diligently is a simple one, she said.  

“If people are disenfranchised, we are at risk of losing our democracy,” she said. 

Craig remains motivated to continue voter registration work for another reason, one that often shows itself when people complete the process necessary to vote. 

“Once they’re registered, the reaction on some of their faces makes this so worth it,” she said.