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Voters wait in line at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia's largest early voting location, to cast ballots on Oct. 12.

Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Aditya Jhaveri and Sun Woo Park, student government leaders for the Emory University College of Arts and Sciences in Atlanta, have been working for the past two years to get university administrators to cancel classes on Election Day and allow students time to vote and participate in the political process in other ways.

Their efforts, so far unsuccessful, have been driven by students at the university who say instruction and assignments on Election Day are a barrier to political participation. Jhaveri, the council president, and Park, a fourth-year legislator for College Council, are determined to change this. They are working with Time Off to Vote, a national coalition of students who are spearheading letter-writing campaigns and petitions asking college administrators to make Election Day an official holiday on their campuses, or to at least ask professors not to hold classes or schedule exams that day.

The students' effort is part of larger project led by Every Vote Counts, or EVC, a student-led, nonpartisan organization with chapters on about 50 campuses to increase voter access and turnout nationwide. It is also encouraging corporate leaders to give employees at least two hours of paid time off to vote on Election Day.

Work or class obligations are among the top barriers to voting faced by students or young people in general, said Campbell Streator, the executive director of EVC National.

These obligations were the second most common reason students and young people who registered to vote before the presidential election in 2016 did not turn out, according to an analysis by Tufts University's Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE. Forty-seven percent of young voters with college experience said they didn’t vote because they were “too busy or had a conflict” on Election Day, the analysis, which is based on data from the Survey of the Performance of American Elections, found. The survey was conducted by YouGov, a research company, and compiled in a report by Charles Stewart III​, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"There’s this myth of the apathetic young voter, that they can’t be bothered to vote," Streator said. "It is true that they have voted at rates that are lower than others around the country … But there are practical barriers that young people face that others don’t."

There are other well-documented and consistent barriers to voting that students face, such as active suppression by local governments of student voter registration and voting and added confusion this year about absentee or mail-in voting during the coronavirus pandemic.

While select groups of students are more vocal about canceling classes on Election Day this year, the effort isn’t widespread. Streator said he knows of about five to 10 campuses actively seeking an Election Day holiday or class cancellation.

Day on Democracy, an organization that advocates for classes to be replaced by civic engagement activities at colleges on Election Day, built an ongoing interactive map of the effort and as of Oct. 21 reported that eight campuses had previous unsuccessful attempts to get classes canceled or the day declared an official holiday. The map also showed another seven campuses, including Emory, are engaged in ongoing efforts, and eight campuses that successfully achieved class cancellation either through student- and faculty-led movements or college administration initiatives.

Several public university systems and other colleges observe Election Day as a state holiday, according to the map.

Chadwick Leonard, Florida coordinator for the Fair Election Center’s Campus Vote Project, which works with 250 college campuses on student voter education and turnout, said he doesn't consider classes on Election Day a major barrier to voting in this year's election. Many college campuses are operating classes entirely remotely this semester or have a mix of in-person or remote instruction and more students are expected to vote by mail, which wouldn't necessitate a day off to physically go to the polls, he said during a recent web event.

“That would probably be more of a conversation if students are actually on campus,” Leonard said.

Despite this year's emphasis on mail-in voting, new results from a survey administered to 1,002 students at the beginning of October show that a majority of them are planning to vote in person. Sixty-four percent of 18- to 24-year-olds, more than other age groups, said they are planning to vote in person, and 43 percent said they would cast their ballot specifically on Election Day, according to the survey report, which was administered and developed by Course Hero, a course material subscription service.

This result is "not at all surprising," said Elizabeth Matto, director of the Center for Youth Political Participation at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics. Voting in person is a more "straightforward" process for students of traditional college age, who have limited voting experience and knowledge. There are specific directions and changes in distanced voting processes due to the pandemic that students must know to request or fill out a mail-in ballot in some states, and in the end, it's going to be easier for many of them to just show up in person.

"There’s uncertainty for students in the best of years," Matto said. "The way we do elections is confusing and burdensome, especially for young adults when you don’t have a voting history and you’re moving a lot."

Maud Mandel, president of Williams College, a private liberal arts college in Massachusetts, said making information about mail-in voting available for students this year due to the pandemic may contribute to a higher number of students casting votes, because the process is over all “easier.” Holding classes on Election Day has not been an issue for students at Williams; the college mostly serves out-of-state students who are usually registered to vote in their home states, and the college is encouraging students over all to vote by mail, Mandel said.

“Given that almost no students on my campus vote here in Massachusetts, very few, by definition almost everybody is voting in some distanced way,” she said. “So the barrier to students having classes here is not there.”

Jhaveri, the Emory College Council president, said that about 120 student organizations and 1,800 students at Emory signed a petition in August calling on university president Gregory Fenves and Giacomo Negro, president of the Emory University Senate, to designate Election Day as a university holiday. Multiple student government groups on campus also passed resolutions during the 2019-20 academic year supporting the initiative. The request is popular among students despite undergraduate classes being entirely remote this semester, Jhaveri said.

“Emory University would be demonstrating its full-fledged support for civic engagement and creating an environment where students feel empowered to exercise their right to vote," the petition said. "This would embolden students to participate in other electoral activities and get-out-the-vote efforts, such as canvassing, volunteering for a campaign, and working as a polling officer.”

Although the Emory students' efforts were unsuccessful this year, as they were last year, faculty leaders and administrators did offer a concession by encouraging instructors to limit mandatory classes and assignments on Nov. 3.

The effort isn’t just about casting a ballot, Jhaveri said. Canceling classes on Nov. 3 or designating Election Day an official university holiday would allow students to volunteer as poll workers, which Streator said is an all-day commitment that students cannot make if they are required to be in class. Students stepping up as poll workers is more vital for this election cycle than in previous years, as many states reported shortages in poll workers -- a majority of whom are over 60 and more at risk of getting sick from the coronavirus -- due to concerns about the pandemic, according to Stateline, a Pew Research publication.

“It’s a little narrow-minded to think of civic engagement only as voting,” Jhaveri said. “People can be poll workers. That is something that is prevented if there are classes on Election Day … Students have directly messaged us and said, ‘If Emory doesn’t have Election Day off, I will not be able to be a poll worker.’”

Negro, the University Senate president, also sent a message to students on behalf of the Senate encouraging them to vote and informed them of the Senate's recommendation that faculty members not schedule exams or mandatory assignments and allow students to make up for missed classes on Nov. 3 “without incurring any adverse consequences.”

However, Jhaveri and Park remain concerned the emailed guidance will not be enough to get all professors to comply and that some students will still face obstacles to voting or volunteering as poll workers. In a survey of 157 students administered by the council, 62 students said “none” of their professors were making accommodations for Election Day, and 87 said “some” were. Jhaveri also noted reports of long lines already forming for early voting sites around Atlanta, which could discourage students from going to the polls in person if they are not given adequate time to do so.

“There should be as few barriers in place for students to vote as possible,” he said. “There should be policies in place to accommodate as much voting as possible … The foundation of what our country is built on is being tested this year. The way that’s solved is getting students, faculty, everybody out to vote.”

Matto said canceling classes on Election Day should not be the end-all, be-all effort on campuses to increase student turnout. She noted that, if given a day off in a typical year, when campuses are filled with students and often have polling places within their facilities, students might be compelled to leave and not vote if they don't have classes. The goal of college leaders should be to encourage a climate of democratic participation and potentially replace formal classes with voter engagement activities and discussions.

"I really would encourage campuses, not just in this election but every election, all year long, to use the democratic process as a learning opportunity but also doing whatever they can to support students who want to vote on Election Day," Matto said.

Mandel, the Williams College president, and three other college presidents -- Wayne Frederick of Howard University, Jonathan Holloway of Rutgers and Ellen Kennedy of Berkshire Community College -- discussed the role of higher education in the electoral process and voting rights during a webinar on Oct. 20 hosted by the democratic studies program at Williams and the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers. Frederick noted that sometimes students who are politically engaged between election cycles do not believe that their vote matters and do not end up casting a ballot. It's important for college leaders to combat this belief, he said.

"Change does occur. It isn't always at the pace we would like and it isn't always pretty, but it does happen and you must participate in order to have it happen," Frederick said.

Holloway urged Rutgers students who might feel discouraged to vote due to the outcome in 2016 or the current state of partisan politics to "be a force of change or of continuity."

"Think about how much has changed in the last four years, whether you like it or not," Holloway said. "It's kind of mind-bending … Politics are deeply dynamic and they respond to people who vote. We are living in an era of high voter suppression, culturally, politically, strategically, judicially, you name it. That doesn't mean it's set in stone. Not at all. We all have an active role we can play, and that begins with voting."

Mandel said seeing more students engaged in protest and debate over political issues and social justice this year makes her “optimistic” about student turnout for the presidential election. She hopes that students can channel this political energy into high voter turnout.

“There’s been a growing effort among college-aged Americans to think about ways to be engaged through the political process, both in political and activist forms,” Mandel said.

Park, who immigrated to the United States from South Korea in 2011 and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2018, said his mother was arrested and jailed in South Korea because of her political activism. Her experiences deepened his appreciation for voting and civic engagement. He worries that trust in American democracy and voting is at risk this year and noted the spreading of unsubstantiated allegations by political leaders about fraud in the mail-in voting system. He said the best way for young people -- large numbers of whom have been heavily engaged in the Black Lives Matter movement this summer and who are becoming the nation’s largest voting bloc -- to restore faith in democracy is to have historic turnout.

“We have a lot of allegations that the election isn’t a fair system and vote by mail is not valid, so it’s important to show that our democracy works,” Park said. “This is our future. We have to make sure it’s safeguarded and protected.”

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