The Politics of Election Day Classes

Civic-minded students advocate for canceling or excusing absences from classes; many colleges leave the matter up to individual professors.
October 21, 2008

Should Election Day be a college holiday?

Alternatively, should professors grant an automatic excused absence to students who miss class come November 4?

Variations of those questions are coming up on campuses with Election Day -- not a cause for canceling classes at most colleges -- now two weeks away.

“True to the cliché, this is a very important time and students are becoming more and more involved and more and more concerned than, I think, before,” says Colleen Clark. A junior at the University of Virginia, Clark is the primary face behind an online petition “asking for leniency from professors if students miss class on that day. If a professor has an exam scheduled or a major assignment due, we ask that this professor consider moving the respective exam or assignment to another date,” states the petition, which had 2,723 signatures as of late Monday.

"By expressing an understanding of the students’ desire to part take in this election, the administration and faculty of UVA will be sending a message indicating the significance of students' actively participating in the electoral process."

The University of Virginia has no policy on Election Day classes, leaving the matter to professorial discretion. An earlier version of the petition called for canceling classes on Election Day -- something Clark concedes that, in her heart of hearts, she’d still like to see. But, she said Monday, “because the academic calendar is set so far in advance, and professors already have syllabi set, the more effective approach seems to be [advocating] leniency.”

Earlier this year, elsewhere in Virginia, Liberty University -- a Baptist institution founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, a powerful force in conservative politics -- announced it would cancel classes and offer bus service to the polls. ("Liberty University’s 11,000 students and 4,000 faculty and staff could cause Liberty to become known as the university that elected a president!” said the chancellor, Jerry Falwell Jr., in an e-mail to the institution.) Elsewhere again, some other college students do traditionally have the day off -- in Hawaii, where Election Day is a state holiday, for instance, all the University of Hawaii System campuses are closed.

But, as Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, points out, “Voting day is not a national holiday in the United States.”

“I appreciate that students assume some kind of a [negative] value judgment" on the part of universities that choose to hold classes on Election Day, he said. "But I don’t think any value judgment is intended. Colleges are simply following the cue of society at large. And society at large has decided that voting is something that can be accommodated in the context of other activities of the day. So that’s what colleges tend to do.”

“Be that as it may, if somebody needs to take an entire day to exercise their constitutional right, I am certain that institutions can accommodate them on an individual basis," Nassirian said.

At colleges where student concern over Election Day classes has erupted, discussions seem to center around a conflict in expectations. On one hand, there’s an expectation on the part of colleges that students should be able to balance voting with their other obligations, academic and otherwise, voting absentee in advance if they have to -- in short, fitting voting in as many working Americans do.

On the other, there’s an expectation on the part of some students that it's a college's role to remove students' obstacles to voting and actively support many students’ first foray into the democratic process.

“The right to vote is the very premise upon which our country stands. If education truly is the goal of the university, educators must do all they can to ensure students have the opportunity to participate in an important civics lesson that no class -- even political science -- could ever teach,” argued a Sunday editorial in The Minnesota Daily, the student paper at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. It went on to ask, "What professor believes their class more valuable than that tradition [of free and fair elections]?"

At issue at Minnesota is a University Senate policy on "makeup work for legitimate absences." The policy includes a list of “unavoidable or legitimate circumstances” that students shouldn’t be penalized for -- including “verified illness, participation in intercollegiate athletic events or other group activities sponsored by the university, subpoenas, jury duty, military service, and religious observances." The policy explicitly excludes voting from that list, stipulating that, "This policy does not extend to voting in local, state, or national elections."

Dan Wolter, a university spokesman, explained that faculty can still opt to excuse students for Election Day activities. He pointed out, however, that the polls are open for 13 hours. “It really is up to an individual faculty member if they feel like they want to make it an excused absence. The university is simply saying, ‘We’re not going to require you to do that,’ ” Wolter said.

“This is something that faculty should deal with on a case-by-case basis, rather than the university giving a blanket excused absence to everyone.”

Catherine Wambach, chair of the University Senate’s committee on Educational Policy, said via e-mail that while she wasn’t on the committee when it approved the policy in question, she understands the rationale behind it. She cited the extended time window in which students can vote and the relative ease of voting absentee in Minnesota. “We also expect faculty and staff to be at work on Election Day and vote before or after work. Some unionized workers may have clauses in their contracts that allow them to vote in the morning and arrive up to an hour late to work, but for the most part, everyone is expected to be here.”

Jessica Nowlin, president of the Law School Democrats at Minnesota, said she wouldn’t be overly critical of the institution's policy. But she would prefer to see voting included in the university-wide list of reasons for legitimate absences.

”I think that it’s important for a public university to encourage its students to vote,” she said, adding a practical consideration: that a significant increase in registration could translate into long lines on Election Day. “I don’t want people to be discouraged from going to the polls just because they think it’s going to take three or four hours -- and it might. And it certainly shouldn't be because they have to get to property class or something."

There's another issue of students who not only want to vote, but also volunteer. Nowlin has been contacting Minnesota professors on behalf of students who want to serve as poll workers. Most have been supportive. “I can’t imagine that professors are not going to be supportive on an individual basis of people taking part," she said.

Meanwhile, on Monday at Kalamazoo College, in Michigan, the provost overruled a request from a College Democrat to send, over an institution-wide e-mail, a request that faculty cancel Election Day classes and instead encourage students to volunteer. “I think it’s the faculty member who has the responsibility [regarding] what they do with their classes, what the content is, whether they’re going to hold it or not hold it.… It’s not up to the students,” Michael McDonald, the provost, said in an interview.

While plenty of students would no doubt volunteer, there’s a parallel reality that many students might not spend the extra time in their schedules so nobly.

A Facebook group associated with the (original) Virginia petition calling for a cancellation of classes features a lively discussion on its "wall." It includes a post taking issue with the suggestion that college students are “disadvantaged” by having to go to class on Election Day, and another post in which a student responds, “I think we can all agree that the more people vote the better. Canceling classes I think would facilitate that and thus canceling classes would be a good thing for democracy.”

It also includes this post, perhaps made in jest: “If you actually plan on voting you're a total loser. I just want a day off to smoke pot like a normal American college student.”


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