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'This election is everything': College students push schools to cancel classes on Election Day

Tamir Harper, a junior at American University, called on the school to cancel classes to allow students to be able to vote in person and also volunteer as poll workers.
Image: national voter registration day
Nicole Hensel, left, and Raegan Cotton of New Era Colorado are trying to register college students to vote and answer their voting logistics questions at Auraria Campus in Denver, Colo. on Sept. 22, 2020. Photo by Hyoung Chang/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images) "nHyoung Chang / The Denver Post via Getty Images file

"This election is everything," Tamir Harper said. "I'm a 2000s baby. I've lived through everything — 9/11, wars, and now a historic presidency and also a pandemic."

Harper, a junior at American University, is one of many students across the country who lobbied their colleges to make Election Day an academic holiday.

In a Sept. 20 tweet, Harper called on the university to cancel classes to allow students to be able to vote in person and also volunteer as poll workers. As the tweet circulated, Harper organized an email campaign effort that led to over 175 emails being sent to university administration. Another student put together a petition, which reached over 500 signatures by the time it was sent to university administrators.

Harper’s efforts were a success. On Monday, American University announced its decision to cancel classes for Election Day, joining schools like Brown University, the University of Utah, and Colorado College who also gave students the time off.

Student leaders launched a similar grassroots effort at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill. Chris Suggs, the senior class president, said he does not expect the university system— composed of 16 colleges and one high school— to agree, but that many teachers have indicated they will let students take time off regardless.

Turnout among 18-to-24-year-olds voters has been historically low, just at 48.3% in the 2016 election, according to an analysis from Tufts University. Harper and student leaders like him are hoping that canceling classes will make voting more accessible.

Image: University of California polling station
Students wait in line to cast their ballot at a polling station on the campus of the University of California, Irvine, on Nov. 6, 2018 in Irvine, Calif.Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images file

But not every school has been as flexible, especially ones whose academic calendars have been truncated due to Covid-19.

The University of Pennsylvania last month shot down a push from a bipartisan group of student leaders to make Election Day an academic holiday.

Emma Wennberg, the Communications Director for PennDems, said that her group will continue "to try to pressure department heads to allow excused absences because the university has left it up to each individual department to set the guidelines."

Emory University also punted the decision to the individual teachers, but Interim Provost Jan Love noted in a university-wide email that it "may not be possible because the university has compressed the semester calendar to cope with the pandemic."

For the 2018 midterms, the university launched the Emory Votes Initiative which sought to increase political participation by providing rides to the polls and election information. The initiative continues this November, adding on guidance for those students who want to become poll workers in Georgia.

But some Emory students pushed back the school needs to go farther and make Election Day an academic holiday.

"Free information and rides won’t cut it," said the editorial board of the Emory Wheel, the school's student-run newspaper. "Emory must aid students in exercising their most fundamental democratic right: the vote."

They’re also hoping it will encourage students to get involved in working the polls. Poll workers are in high demand this November, as most poll workers tend to be older than 61 years old, according to Pew Research, and therefore more vulnerable to Covid-19.

According to the Emory Wheel, DeKalb and Newton Counties in Georgia, where Emory’s campuses are located, faced a surge in poll worker applications partly thanks to the eager students, leaving new applicants on long waitlists.

At the University of Texas-Austin, sophomore Ainsley Dorsey and senior Neha Valmiki are recruiting their peers through their on-campus civic engagement organization Hook The Vote. By distributing poll worker registration forms and working with Travis County to ensure the students are eligible, they hope to make it easier for students to get involved. They're also putting together a shift schedule to make sure that each of the two polling sites on campus is staffed round the clock.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an influx of students signed up to be poll workers with the Madison City Clerk offices and with Dane County, where Madison is located. The City Clerk’s Office said it has twice as many workers as in the past three presidential elections and are unable to accept additional applications.

Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell told the campus newspaper, The Badger Herald, that students who are registered and receive training will be a “great advantage” for future elections too.

"We are in good shape for election day," McDonell said.