The following is a guest contribution and reflects the author’s views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion Section, click here.
Voting is the most powerful tool citizens have in a democracy. That’s why it is so concerning that today, the right to vote looks more like a privilege. Citizens who have been convicted of a crime are routinely deprived of the ability to cast a ballot. Gerrymandering and skewed representation in the Electoral College often make voters feel as if their voices don’t matter. Over the last few decades, it has become rare for turnout to crack 60 percent of eligible voters even in presidential election years. For midterm and local elections, only a tiny fraction of the electorate votes.
One of the causes of this perpetual shortfall in voting is Election Day itself. The fact that federal elections generally fall on a Tuesday makes it difficult for many working Americans to vote. Efforts to fix this problem on a national scale are stalled. But just because the government has failed to recognize and act on this problem doesn’t mean Princeton should do the same. It’s time for the University to fulfill its commitments to students and staff and make Election Day a holiday.
Like many baffled Americans, we have often wondered why such an important event falls on a Tuesday in November. The answer is as anachronistic as it is interesting. In 1845, Congress decided elections would be held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November so farmers could travel on Monday (thus avoiding conflicts for those attending church on Sunday), vote on Tuesday, and return home in time for market day on Wednesday.
Clinging to this schedule today is little short of voter suppression. For nearly all Americans, the Tuesday of Election Day is a workday. Only 22 states require time off to vote for employees, and even fewer require that time off to be paid. New Jersey is not one of them. For those without generous or civically-minded employers, leaving work to vote costs time and money. Voting should not be the privilege of those who can afford to leave work or school. It should not be contingent on employment, income, or leisure time, but it is. Many experts blame the date for the U.S.’s chronically low voter turnout, and argue that making Election Day a national holiday is a partial fix.
The nation is no closer to making this reform a reality – nor, unfortunately, is Princeton University. Over a year has passed since undergraduates overwhelmingly voted for a referendum calling on the University to make federal elections campus holidays, and still the University has not seriously discussed changing the academic calendar.
Princeton is no different from the rest of the nation. We, too, struggle with abysmally low voter turnout rates. Just 10.5 percent of eligible Princetonians voted in 2014. Turnout increased dramatically for the 2020 election, but the extraordinary media attention and emergency expansion of voting by mail, due to the pandemic, cannot be expected to carry through to future presidential and midterm elections in every state.
It’s not hard to identify a common factor that stops Princetonians from going to the polls: time. Princeton students are perpetually inundated with classwork, exams, and extracurriculars. Few, if any, efforts are made to lighten their workload on Election Day. For far too many, there is simply not a spare moment in the day to go to the polls.
The University has the power to change this. Although it cannot change when elections are held, it can change how it handles them. By canceling or shortening classes, the University could ensure that each and every Princetonian has a chance to make their voice heard. Not only students, but faculty and staff should be guaranteed enough time to cast a ballot. Princeton educates 5,200 people, and employs 7,000 more. It must take action to ensure that those 12,000+ people are able to make their voices heard.
Undoubtedly, the loss of a class day would be a sacrifice for the University. But it is hard to think of a more worthwhile cause for which to sacrifice than democracy itself. Princeton already devotes enormous resources to Vote100 and getting out the vote; it has invested in social media campaigns, in voter registration tools, and in building a campus culture of civic engagement. We cannot allow those resources to go to waste simply because Princetonians are too busy to go to the polls on Election Day.
A voting holiday will make it easier for students to vote. But helping faculty and staff vote is equally important. Currently, the University does not guarantee time off to vote, whether paid or unpaid. Functionally, this means that decisions on whether employees can expect to vote without professional repercussions fall to individual managers. This kind of uneven and unregulated system injects even more uncertainty into the voting process, and disproportionately affects University employees with less job security.
We have made this argument before and are supported by the student body, who overwhelmingly approved a referendum endorsing the designation of Election Day as a University holiday. Yet, the administration seems to have given no serious consideration to an action plan on the matter. Our proposal has been largely met with silence – until, at a Council of Princeton University Community (CPUC) meeting on Nov. 8, 2021 (just days after a critical New Jersey election), President Eisgruber was asked why the University had not yet acted to make Election Day a holiday.
“Our approach,” he said at the meeting, “is to emphasize the need for managers to be flexible and supportive, because there are lots of ways to vote, including by mail in New Jersey. We don’t think a holiday is the right way, but we think it’s important to support efforts to increase capacity to vote.” This is an evasion. A gentle suggestion that managers be flexible is insufficient, and nowhere close to a University-wide guarantee that employees can take time to vote. The right to vote is far too important to be subject to an unwritten and avowedly arbitrary policy.
President Eisgruber’s argument that New Jersey allows voting by mail presumes that the state’s complicated and often cumbersome election machinery will work as planned – that ballot requests will be received on time, that ballots will be mailed on time, and that they will be returned to boards of election on time. Employees who have missed these deadlines will not be able to vote on Election Day because their employer will have already decided that they should have voted by mail. Employees and students alike are denied the option of volunteering as poll workers (who are desperately needed, especially during the pandemic) because of obligations that the University does not allow them to shed for a day.
But, aside from any of these practical considerations, it is simply the right thing to do. Princeton is an institution that places democracy and public service at the center of its values, and it has the power to demonstrate its commitment to these institutions more powerfully than ever before. We have the chance to lead by example.
Princeton could be among the first universities to make such a simple but powerful improvement to democracy. And all that is required is one Tuesday in November.
Ana Blanco is a junior concentrating in Public and International Affairs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Joe Shipley is a senior concentrating in History. He can be reached at email@example.com. The two are Co-Head Fellows at Vote100 and were sponsors of the Fall 2020 Election Day Referendum.