Open Letter | Election Day should be a campus holiday

Alli Swann is the Team Lead of UA Vote Everywhere, a campus branch of the Andrew Goodman Foundation that aims to register college voters, advocate for voting rights and increase the accessibility of voting on and off campus. This letter was written in collaboration with other Vote Everywhere members to highlight the importance of having Election Day as a student holiday.

Alli Swann, Guest Columnist

The Capstone Creed sets the expectation for our campus community to “foster civic responsibility.” While resources exist on campus that provide students with opportunities to be civically engaged, there remains a staggering barrier to one of the most fundamental forms of civic participation. In many ways, our foremost right of citizenship — voting — is under threat.

Legislatures in 49 states have introduced more than 400 bills with provisions that restrict voting access. Even without this aggressive wave of voter suppression laws, young people face burdensome hurdles that impede their ability to vote. From lack of convenient and early voting options to stringent absentee ballot requirements, college students face barriers to making their voices heard.

One of the largest and most conspicuous obstacles to student voter turnout among college campuses is time. On any given Tuesday, students at The University of Alabama will have class, homework and tests. Many will attend events, extracurricular activities or leisure activities on campus. Faculty and staff members will host office hours, teach classes, take meetings with students and spend all day on campus. But, every two years, elections are held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. 

Fostering the most foundational aspect of civic engagement becomes difficult when campus life does not acknowledge the significance of Election Day or give adequate time for members of the campus community to exercise their right to vote. At a moment when democratic ideals and institutions are being challenged, The University of Alabama has the pressing opportunity and responsibility to encourage civic engagement.

Instituting Election Day as a campus holiday will bring the University to the forefront in fostering civic engagement and empower other institutions of higher education to do the same. Taking this critical step in making the University a voter-friendly campus and recognizing the importance of civic participation is not just a solution Vote Everywhere wants to see — it is a solution that many different groups of students, faculty and staff want to happen. 

According to a survey of  1335 UA students conducted by Vote Everywhere in April of 2021, 57% of respondents voted in person in the 2020 election. Roughly 40% of respondents said they didn’t have time to vote in person on Election Day. About 47% of students couldn’t  transport themselves to vote in person.

The ease of access to voting significantly impacts a student’s decision to vote, as about 43% of students wouldn’t have voted in 2020 if they didn’t have access to absentee ballots, representing a staggering population who may not vote in the future if classes are in session. 

Amid a unanimous SGA Senate vote on a resolution to establish Election Day as a campus holiday, Vote Everywhere worked hard at Get on Board Day to make students aware of the impediments classes pose to voting. During GOBD, and in the days since, Vote Everywhere has amassed over 883 responses from UA students 98% of respondents support making Election Day a campus holiday.

Furthermore, 90% of respondents agree that having Election Day off would make voting easier for them, and 87% agree that it would make them more likely to vote in an election.

In 2018, the University boasted a high rate of registered student voters at 77.3%. However, in the 2018 midterm election, only 30.2% of students nationwide cast a ballot.

Registering to vote demonstrates a student’s  civic attitudes, but we must convert civic attitudes into civic action. Freeing time for students to vote on federal Election Days will increase voter participation among eligible students, faculty and staff.

Time off to vote can be utilized in more ways than just showing up to the polls. The University’s high out-of-state population, 443 out of 911 responses,  is reflected in a high percentage of UA students registered to vote outside of Tuscaloosa

Prioritizing voting in this way sends signals that underscore the importance of civic engagement. These signals help free up busy schedules for out-of-state students to fill out absentee ballots or travel home to vote in person. Stressing time to reflect on the nature of democracy and how citizens can impact their communities would provide an important marker for students in considering their role within campus, city and state communities. 

Elections can be stressful for citizens. Ahead of November 2020, 68% of Americans  the presidential election was a significant source of stress in their lives. Giving the campus community the day off would reflect the University’s commitment to recognizing mental health and well-being and provide the campus community time to seek support.

A straightforward solution exists to these challenges that impede voter turnout and civic responsibility: federal Election Day should be designated a campus holiday every two years. This decision would not be unprecedented. The Day on Democracy movement tracks the cancellation of classes at institutions of higher education across the country. Three other SEC schools already treat Election Day as a holiday: the University of South Carolina, the University of Oklahoma and the University of Kentucky.

Students at Clemson, Rutgers and the University of Pennsylvania, to name a few, also have the day off. Successfully initiating and implementing a student-led effort to dismiss classes on Election Day would put The University of Alabama ahead of other SEC schools in its commitment to democratic engagement and would set a compelling precedent for other institutions to follow.

Often, The University of Alabama is isolated from its surroundings. A day off can also be a day on: a day to recruit student poll workers, encourage conversations on civic engagement and connect students with opportunities to serve Tuscaloosa. Through emphasizing service to our neighbors and reflection about our place — as citizens and as a University — having Election Day off would better integrate the University into the fabric of the Tuscaloosa community.

While this is my final year at the University, I envision a future where students are not only encouraged but empowered to participate in democracy, where they don’t have to face the anxieties of missing class because they want to make their voices heard, where voting is accessible and equitable for the entire campus community.

We must dismantle the barrier that mandatory classes pose to creating and maintaining a healthy and inclusive democracy. It is incumbent upon the University to ensure that its values translate into noticeable action so that the entire UA community can meaningfully engage in democracy and service. An election day without classes would not only give students, faculty and staff the time to cast their ballots and make critical decisions but would also center the University’s commitment to civic engagement and responsibility and bring the University to the cutting edge of democratic engagement in higher education. 

If you support taking this vital step in advancing civic action at The University of Alabama, please help by signing our petition

Opinions Editor Ava Fisher is an ambassador for UA Vote Everywhere.