The 2020 general election will be uniquely dangerous. Not since 1918 have Americans gone to the polls amid an unmitigated pandemic. With American democracy under attack by COVID-19, voter disenfranchisement, foreign nations and the president himself, students must vote like never before. So, Emory administrators, we urge you to designate Election Day an academic holiday to make that happen.
We made a similar appeal in November 2019. Nothing has changed. Our reasoning then is our reasoning now: the University has the power to lower barriers to voting that students face. If anything, however, the urgency of our need for an Election Day holiday has only grown in the nine months since. The pandemic has made going to the polls harder for Emory students nationwide, and this election will be singularly critical for our society’s well-being: in this year alone, we have reckoned with President Donald Trump’s mishandling of COVID-19, his impeachment and widespread racial injustice. We needed an academic holiday on Election Day then, and we need it even more now.
Emory must do its part in empowering students to vote. Many Emory students will be eligible to vote in a presidential election for the first time this fall; evidence suggests that those who participate in the political process now will become more likely to continue doing so for the rest of their lives. Emory is uniquely positioned to communicate the power of voting to its students, and they must utilize that faculty. An Election Day holiday would create many lifelong voters and teach students the value of political participation.
Voting has never been a particularly pleasant or feasible experience and is becoming increasingly inaccessible. In-person voting requires most to wake up earlier than normal, skip a meal or take time off of work to get to the polls. In the age of COVID-19, navigating the process of absentee voting is particularly tricky as well. In Georgia, as in many states, anyone may legally vote by mail, but they can only do so after requesting an absentee ballot. Sending for the ballot, picking it up from the mail center, filling it out and returning it all require costly time and energy. Given our busy schedules, many Emory students are unmotivated to endure that hassle. Even registering to vote is a taxing and confusing process in and of itself, given that most Emory students do not hail from Georgia and often do not know where they can vote. No one should ever have to sacrifice class time to participate in the electoral process. Emory’s students, faculty and staff are no exception.
In the 2018 midterm elections, only 41% of Atlanta campus students and 28% of Oxford campus students voted. The national average was 53.4%. Clearly, students can and must do better, and canceling classes on Election Day is a low-cost way of helping that happen. Nearly all instruction is now remote and many classes already have large asynchronous components; one asynchronous day would impose few academic costs on instructors and students alike. The academic holiday would both grant students the time and energy necessary to exercise their right to vote and, by setting a day aside, reaffirm the importance of voting to young college students.
Such a step would be far from unprecedented. In July, the University of Illinois school system announced that it would institute a holiday this year, and the University of Kentucky has done the same. Both universities, like Emory, are conducting education almost exclusively online. An Election Day holiday is not merely a worthwhile idea — it’s also a feasible one.
We are not alone in that opinion; many students have demanded that Emory establish an Election Day holiday. On Sept. 1, College Council emailed the Emory community to sign a petition requesting that Emory administrators “designate Election Day as a university-wide holiday.” In the interest of pressuring administrators to agree, this Board urges all students and student organizations to add their names to the petition.
The University has encouraged political participation among its students in the past, as with the 2018 Emory Votes Initiative. Through that program, students received information about Georgia’s midterm elections and were provided free shuttles to polling places. This year’s initiative explains the registration process, Georgia’s electoral schedule and more.
This year, however, free information and rides won’t cut it. We urge the University to create a new academic holiday, and with it, a more socially and politically engaged community. Emory must aid students in exercising their most fundamental democratic right: the vote.
We also encourage students who have registered in Georgia to request an absentee ballot here, which will help relieve busy polling places and minimize the risk of contracting COVID-19. A list of drop boxes accepting ballots can be found here.
The above editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel’s Editorial Board. The Editorial Board is composed of Brammhi Balarajan, Jake Busch, Meredith McKelvey and Ben Thomas.