As Election Day rapidly approaches, student leaders and activists are working to encourage members of the campus community to cast their ballots.
On Thursday, a collective of student leaders sent a letter to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and UNC System leaders asking that campus operations be paused on Election Day to increase voter turnout.
“As it currently stands, the UNC System will be fully operational on Election Day,” the letter said. “We write to request that the System pauses campus operations at all UNC System schools on Tuesday, November 3, to give students, faculty and staff the opportunity to exercise their civic responsibility on Election Day, free of academic or employment obligation.”
As an alternative to a full day of paused operations, the letter also recommended that UNC suspend classes after 2 p.m. on Election Day.
Only 55.7 percent of U.S. citizens and 48.3 percent of students voted in the 2016 election, according to statistics referenced in the letter.
Michelle Thomas, first-year graduate student and vice chairperson of the Commission on Campus Equality and Student Equity, said there’s growing concern that students will not have the opportunity to vote on Nov. 3 without being penalized for missing or running late to class.
“Going out and voting, you have to do it,” Thomas said. “It’s one thing to be registered, but you must exercise that right. We want everyone to get out and do it and there be no barriers.”
In an emailed response to signers of the letter obtained by The Daily Tar Heel, Guskiewicz said that due to the school’s greatly compressed academic calendar, the school is unable to pause campus operations on Election Day.
“We encourage all of our Carolina Community to plan ahead now and take advantage of the many options they’ll have to cast their ballot up to and on November 3,” Guskiewicz said in the email.
Nicholas Batman, founder and director of the Civic Engagement Action Coalition, said getting a holiday on Election Day is often one of the primary goals of a civic engagement organization on a college campus. He said many people wait until Election Day to vote in person and having the day off could help mitigate the long lines people confront at the polls.
“To make sure there’s no delays, to make sure people have time to go out and vote, they don’t have to be crunched and waiting for hours when they finish classes, or they finish work or whatever,” Batman said.
Thomas also said many students have their eyes glued to news outlets on Election Day. She said having the day off could alleviate the pressure students experience as election results and course content compete for their attention.
“Any way where students do not feel that pressure where they have to be in class and they have to be very attentive while they’re in class, because of course, going to class and not being attentive does nothing,” she said.
Nicole Else-Quest, associate professor in the department of women's and gender studies, will be offering her courses asynchronously on Election Day. She said she recalls that in 2012 and 2016, many students felt stressed about when they were going to get to their polling place. She said they had jobs, families, and full coarse loads — and generally little control of their schedules.
“I think that speaks to the value of making Election Day a national holiday," she said in an email. "For working parents especially, I think waiting in line to vote can be really hard to squeeze into the day. Voting shouldn't be hard."
Darian Abernathy, chairperson of the Carolina Union Board of Directors, said members of this collective have plans to work with the University and explore other ways the school can support civic engagement since having a holiday on Election Day is not feasible.
She said one proposal is that instructors don’t have anything due on Election Day, so students wouldn’t need to worry about turning in an assignment after potentially waiting in line to vote.
Batman also said his organization had the idea of asking notable UNC graduates to make videos encouraging students to vote.
“The University could truly snap its fingers and get that project done in a second,” he said.
Else-Quest said everything seems to have gotten more complicated because of the pandemic, so she is encouraging students to explore their option and make a plan to vote.
"Too often, I have heard students tell me over the years that voting didn’t matter or that they weren’t 'political,' so they wouldn’t vote, and of course we know that voter turnout is generally poor in the U.S. If more students voted, elected officials would start prioritizing the issues that matter to them,” she said.
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