Students push for election holiday, even during midterms
Jared Goldberg estimates he stood beside the Bell Tower—a central landmark of Temple University’s campus—for more than 50 hours this semester as part of his campaign to get Temple to make Election Day a campus holiday.
For about two weeks, rain or shine, the senior and political science major stood outside between his classes, holding a sign that read, “Tell Temple to Cancel Classes on Election Day,” above a QR code that students could scan with a cellphone to sign his petition.
He had already solicited faculty signatures by going door to door through five academic buildings, leaving notes on each door and emailing the professors whose offices he passed.
“A lot of this process was really instinct,” said Goldberg, who had accrued 4,387 signatures on the petition as of Tuesday night—including a few big-name alumni such as Eddie Glaude, the chair of Princeton University’s department of African American studies and a well-known scholar.
Temple students and administrators largely support Goldberg’s campaign, which also urges the university to use its shuttle buses to help students and community members get to polling places on Election Day. Goldberg secured meetings with several administrators regarding his proposal and even presented it to the Faculty Senate, which voted on Monday to officially consider it at a future date. (The president of the Faculty Senate did not immediately respond to a request from Inside Higher Ed for comment.)
Goldberg is one of many students across the country fighting for their colleges and universities to cancel classes on Election Day, Nov. 8. Advocates say that having the day off encourages young people not only to vote but also to participate in the election by, say, working at the polls or watching the election results with other students. Plus, supporters argue, it sends a message that the university considers voting and civic engagement high priorities.
During the highly contentious 2020 presidential election, student efforts to make Election Day a campus holiday had a strong impact, proving successful in many cases. Colleges such as American University and George Washington University, both in Washington, D.C., Augsburg University in Minnesota and Wayne State University in Michigan canceled classes two years ago in the hopes of improving voter turnout among students.
“A lot of our students have families, they work and they go to school, so they are busy,” Brandon Shamoun, Wayne State’s coordinator of student engagement in the Dean of Students’ Office, said in a 2020 announcement. “This holiday gives them time to ensure they can go and vote. It really showcases the university’s commitment to civic engagement.”
But not every institution has continued the practice. Officials at American, for example, decided to designate Election Day a holiday only during presidential election years, rather than every election cycle. A spokesperson for American told Inside Higher Ed in an email that the university “determined that midterm and off year elections had a varying degree of impact on students depending on where they were from, while the presidential election has a consistently significant impact across our entire community.”
She noted that American still promotes civic engagement through its AU Votes program, which helps students register to vote and request absentee ballots.
“American University is committed to helping students participate in the election in several ways and will continue to make future presidential election days a holiday for the AU community,” she wrote.
But Goldberg said that canceling classes only during presidential elections sends the wrong message to students.
“Voting is something that people learn when they’re young. If they learn only the presidential election is important, that’s all they’re going to vote for,” he said. “Everybody’s voice matters every election.”
This year, students at a handful of universities—in addition to Temple—are pushing administrators to give them the day off to vote, though the movement is quieter than during the 2020 election.
For instance, the state-appointed Michigan Collegiate Student Advisory Task Force, convened to promote youth voter engagement, wrote a letter to the presidents of Michigan’s colleges and universities asking them to make Election Day a holiday and to take other steps to encourage civic engagement among students.
Students at Lehigh University, a private institution in Bethlehem, Pa., successfully pushed for the university to make every Election Day a holiday starting in 2021. The main concern of Lehigh administrators and faculty members was how the day off would impact the school’s intensive laboratory courses, which are often held only once a week.
According to Declan Coster, one of the students behind the campaign, administrators ultimately decided to split up the two days of fall break, which used to be a Monday and Tuesday in October. Now students have one day off in October, and the second has been moved to Election Day.
Instead of classes, the university holds a Civic Engagement Day, which features a series of events that in the past have included debates between the College Democrats and College Republicans, presentations from faculty members who are involved in local politics, and opportunities to write letters to representatives. This year, the programming will be more focused on educating students about how to vote.
“Election Day should be a day to focus on … being a better citizen,” Coster said. “But being a part of your community and trying to learn from your community” is important, too.
Canceling classes is just one of several ways colleges can encourage students to vote, said Mike Burns, the national director of the Campus Vote Project, which works with colleges and universities to get out the student vote. The most effective strategies vary by institution, but it’s important that colleges have plans in place to help students navigate the voting process, he said.
“For some campuses, that could be really focusing in on Election Day and making sure that large numbers of students who are registered at that campus address are able to participate in the election, whether that’s by trying to not have big exams or large assignments due or going all the way and having a campus holiday and canceling classes,” Burns said. “I think there’s different needs for different campuses.”
A recent survey by the Campus Vote Project, which is an initiative of the Fair Elections Center, showed that 38 percent of students view having tests and assignments due on Election Day as a barrier to voting. But the top obstacle students identified was a lack of polling places or ballot drop boxes on campus.
It’s unlikely that Temple will offer Election Day off in 2022, according to both Goldberg and a Temple spokesperson, Steve Orbanek; with Nov. 8 fast approaching, the institution is still working to rearrange the academic calendar to accommodate Goldberg’s request.
“We were very receptive to it,” Orbanek wrote in an email. “We love his passion and that is part of the reason that the administration is looking to see if it can implement parts of it this year. Timing is the main barrier.”
He also said that the university is considering implementing other parts of Goldberg’s proposal (known as “Owls Out for Democracy,” after Temple’s mascot). In addition to using shuttle buses to transport locals to polling places, the proposal asks Temple to partner with local nonpartisan polling groups to “increase accessibility to Democracy for Philadelphians,” provide students with information on voting and host an election night event.
Goldberg hopes that in the interim, the administration will send an email to students reminding them that individual faculty members have the right to cancel class on Election Day.
“Maybe students can have votes in their classes; they can lobby their professors,” he said. “It puts the power in the students’ hands, which is, at the minimum, what I wanted.”