A week from Election Day, the country stands more fractured and divided. With experts anticipating a voter-turnout tsunami and young people already reporting record breaking voting numbers, Americans are nearing a historic election with potentially life-altering implications.
Although many people, young voters especially, are turning out more than ever this year, the importance of Election Day itself is often overlooked. Too many Americans go about Election Day as if it’s just another Tuesday, and it doesn’t help that the day itself doesn’t receive the kind of treatment and recognition that could potentially increase voter awareness.
At a college that supposedly prides itself on progressivism and political engagement, it’s absurd that students, staff and faculty do not get Election Day off.
Administrators have sent emails and launched campaigns for months that are intended to make it easier to vote. They streamline voter registration and speak on the importance of civil service, of choosing your candidate, of participating in democracy. But without declaring Election Day an academic holiday, those efforts are largely performative.
Sure, hundreds of Emerson students have presumably voted absentee this year. A Knight Foundation poll of 4,000 college students found that over half plan to vote absentee or through mail-in voting. That means their ballots have already been signed, sealed and delivered, cast away in mailboxes and transferred hand-to-hand to students’ home states. But political engagement does not end with a stamped ballot or even at a polling place.
With Election Day off, students could volunteer at polling places in and around Boston. There, they could take the place of mostly older workers who have toiled for years and are now adversely threatened by the enduring effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. They could help out voter protection hotlines. They could distribute “I Voted” stickers, drop by campaign events and push others to vote. Journalism and political communications students could get out in the field and experience Election Day in real time, as opposed to taking in curated network feeds from the echochamber confines of the classroom.
The National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement reported that, in 2018, 44.8% of Emerson students voted either absentee or in-person on Election Day, and just over 81% of eligible students were registered to vote. Having Election Day off could even support more students to have more time to vote and participate in this fundamentally important civic process.
Voting is more than the bubble you fill in picking one candidate over the other. It’s an experience. It’s a tenet of democracy that is intrinsically tied to the way our government functions and the way we live. And none of us can fully grasp its importance if on the day that decides the fate of our country, we are tied up in classes, homework, organization meetings and jobs that have nothing to do with the history being made inches from our computer screens.
This also isn’t just any election, but one that has incredibly important ramifications on the international community. Key issues such as the environment, immigration, LGBTQIA+ rights and our nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic are on the ballot and it is the obligation of Emerson students to vote for their fellow international peers who do not get a voice in an election that will invariably affect their ability to learn and grow in this country.
Having Election Day off is even more essential for the college’s non-student population—the faculty and staff members who call Massachusetts home and are more likely to vote in person. The last thing they should be dealing with next Tuesday is making their shift on time or teaching a class. Not when the ballot they cast could affect the future of their health care,reproductive rights, immigration status, social security benefits, livelihood and life.
President M. Lee Pelton announced in an Oct. 22 email that the college would give staff a paid half-day off on Election Day in response to the national non-partisan movement A Day for Democracy. But a half-day isn’t enough considering the difficult circumstances under the pandemic. Early voting at Fenway Park and other polling locations across the city had voters waiting for over an hour. On Election Day in 2016, the voting lines in Boston were notoriously busy. Now the college has a responsibility to observe Election Day as an academic holiday to provide ample time for all community members to vote, volunteer at polling places or engage in other civic activities.
It’s not like Emerson is alone in their policy. Most major higher education institutions in Boston—Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Northeastern and UMass Boston, for example—do not consider Election Day an academic holiday. Some offer limited paid time off for employees and encourage professors to be flexible with students’ scheduling needs that day. Still, that’s not enough.
A number of universities across the country have bowed to their communities’ pushes for Election Day off. Schools like George Washington University and University of Utah listened to advocates and now will not hold classes that day. And throngs of local students are fighting for the initiative.
Even with Election Day so close, it’s not too late to make the change. Other colleges have declared holidays and cancelled classes on short notice—see Harvard with Juneteenth this summer or Northeastern when they declared a day of reflection for victims of police brutality. Administrators, you can make the change. The question simply is whether or not you will.
To the college: You can’t just keep telling us that voting is important. You have to show us you believe that.
The Berkeley Beacon Editorial Board is the voice of the student newspaper that looks to serve the Emerson College community with thoughtful insight into ongoings and occurrences affecting their everyday lives. The board’s positions are determined by its members. The board consists of the editor-in-chief, managing editors, and opinion editors. The opinions expressed by the Editorial Board do not impact the paper’s coverage. You can respond to a position brought forward by The Beacon Editorial Board in the form of a Letter to The Editor by email: Letters@BerkeleyBeacon.com.