Amherst College, Make Election Day a Holiday

Last Monday, Oct. 19, President Biddy Martin sent an email recognizing the importance of voting in the coming election and urging departments and staff supervisors to be “as flexible as possible” with work schedules so staff would be able to vote on Election Day. However, like our fellow editors at the Harvard Crimson, we feel this proposed flexibility is not enough, primarily because that flexibility will be applied unequally depending on the whims of each supervisor or department chair. To avoid this, the administration can and should be more directly involved in efforts to make voting easier for faculty, staff and students. We, the Editorial Board, believe the best way to facilitate this political engagement is to officially recognize Election Day as the holiday it should be, giving faculty, staff, students and, yes, even administrators an equal opportunity to make their voices heard.

By bunting the responsibility of voting accommodations onto individual departments and staff managers, political opportunity becomes contingent on how much control one has over their Nov. 3 work schedule. Put otherwise, voting accommodations become dependent on one’s level of privilege. So as the college’s approach currently stands, Election Day at Amherst College will become an instance of deciding whose political voice should get priority. 

The administration has already acknowledged that this election will be “one of the most unusual and important elections any of us has ever been through,” yet this admission of significance has not been met with equally significant action. Already, student voters are among the least reliable voters in any election, with youth turnout at only 46 percent in the 2016 presidential election (more than 15 points below general turnout). The Amherst College voting rate stood only slightly higher at 52.6 percent, an increase from our below-average 2012 voting rate of 44 percent. 

In part, this is because, for many young voters, the 2016 election was their first election, and in the case of those studying at colleges far from home, many students had to learn not only how to vote for the first time but how to vote by mail, a process more convoluted than simply showing up to your local polling station. This issue will only be compounded in this election, as many students are forced to vote remotely, many without the communal guidance that they may have been able to have in-person had it not been for the pandemic. Canceling classes for the day would give students who still had time to vote more time to figure out how to submit their ballots and students who have already voted more mental energy to devote to helping their peers, or even working at the polls. 

This issue is perhaps even more important for staff, whose work is vital to campus function, making their work schedules less pliable than faculty, students and administrators. As a result, finding time to vote becomes even harder. If we want to be a community that fosters political engagement on a holistic level rather than a case-by-case basis, we should be willing to suffer the temporary difficulty of a staff holiday in order to allow our staff voices to be heard. 

But even if a day without staff is simply too much to bear, the administration could work directly with departments and supervisors to give half of the staff Oct. 30 off (since that is the last day for early voting in Massachusetts) and the other half Nov. 3. This is just one of the many logistical configurations that can be arranged by the administration to provide a holistic and equitable staff voting accommodation policy. Ultimately, as students, it is not the responsibility of the Editorial Board to configure voting for staff — it is up to the college to work out the logistical obstacles if voting is enough of a priority on the institutional level.  

Recognizing Election Day as a holiday, while admittedly not common, is not unprecedented among institutions of higher education. Since 1968, Columbia University has given students two days off in order to participate in American democracy and vote on Election Day. Far from troubling administrators or professors, the break has become a fixture of the university’s academic calendar, unchallenged for over 50 years. More recently, Brown University became the second university in the Ivy League to celebrate Election Day as part of the university’s “mission to prepare students to be responsible members of society,” according to a recent article in The Brown Daily Herald. This goal has been pursued successfully by college students, faculties, and administrators across the country, as they recognize the importance of this election.

But beyond the practical arguments, whether or not the college makes Election Day a holiday is also a value statement. How seriously the administration takes Election Day symbolizes how seriously the college values voter engagement among its community members. 

It is in line with The Student’s editorial theme this year to consider the responsibility of the college and each of its members in creating a civically engaged campus. Election Day is a remarkable symbol of those responsibilities. It is the day of the year in which we are able to decide not only the fate of our communities, but of the country, and even the world (as one of our Seeing Double columnists notes this week). If our mission, as a college, is to “link learning with leadership — in service to the college, to [our] communities, and to the world beyond,” there is no better holiday to observe that mission.

Of course, the college has already donated many resources to initiatives like AC Votes to help pay for stamps and other expenses that go along with voting by mail. However, in reality, the obstacles to voting are much more logistical than financial. The best resource the college can donate to its community is a policy that explicitly gives people extra time and accommodations in these days leading up to the election. 

It goes without saying that we ask for this in a year of immense pressure and stress on all of us, especially those of us from the marginalized communities targeted by President Donald Trump. We ask it in a year when a pandemic stands in the way of an already difficult voting process, and threats of violence before, during and after the election appear greater than ever before. In such an election, surely a day off in order to make our needs known and our voices heard is not too much to ask.

But we want to go further, continuing this new tradition into the future. The right to vote is one we should not only hold dear and cherish but exercise. Voting on Election Day is a fundamental expression of the compassion and intellectual leadership Amherst seeks to foster in its student body. This will remain the case whether the country remains at the precipice of despotism or becomes the idyllic democracy so many in this country are working toward. As an institution, the college owes its students, staff, faculty, and administrators the utmost support in serving and bettering their communities, country, and the world beyond.

In writing this editorial, we are uniting with our fellow editors across the NESCAC in demanding that our colleges regard Election Day with the respect and seriousness it deserves. If the college is responsible for preparing its students not only to succeed in society but to better it, should it not start that process now by helping its community members vote?

Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 10; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 4)