UC must make Election Day noninstructional to encourage student voting

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Over the summer, the ASUC external affairs vice president, ASUC Senate and ASUC Vote Coalition penned a memo imploring campus to deem Election Day a noninstructional holiday. 

This memo was written during a time when COVID-19 cases and deaths exploded throughout the United States, generating concerns regarding the safety of in-person voting. The option of mail-in ballots seems the natural choice, but under new leadership, the U.S. Postal Service has been ravaged with budget cuts, leading to the removal of dozens of mailboxes in many states. These two trends have left voters confused and stressed over the best way to vote. Now, more than ever, the importance of a noninstructional election holiday across all UC campuses is abundantly clear. 

The idea of a noninstructional day for the upcoming presidential election Nov. 3, and for every Election Day after, is not a unique one. Sen. Bernie Sanders has proposed a national Election Day holiday. Some states, such as Illinois and Michigan, have recently deemed Election Day a holiday, and Columbia University has even made Nov. 3 a noninstructional day. For an institution like the UC system, which prides itself on civic engagement and involvement, not granting students a day to cast their ballots seems shameful and hypocritical. Yet, Nov. 3 still remains an instructional day.

Under more “normal” circumstances, there are myriad issues students might encounter on Election Day. One very common issue is ballots being sent to the wrong addresses. Another issue faced by many students who hold jobs is simply not having enough time in the day to attend classes, work and wait in line at the polls. Similarly, commuting students and student-parents may lack the necessary time between classes and their other obligations to vote. Students in these circumstances are put in the tough situation of deciding between their personal and civic responsibilities. 

The common Election Day issues that I recounted are sure to be even more plentiful during the era of COVID-19. For one, the issue of having a ballot sent to the wrong address is undoubtedly an issue we will face with so many college students not residing where they normally would. And this will only be exacerbated by the anticipated sluggishness of the Postal Service. If they don’t receive their ballots on time, some students may have to resort to voting in person on Election Day. 

Additionally, student-parents and working students still face the same, if not worse, time constraints as before, given possible difficulties with securing child care or time off from work, among other challenges. A noninstructional Election Day would afford these students the time to participate in democracy without the additional worry of participating in class too.

UC Berkeley students residing in different places around the country may have no option other than voting in person because several states still require an excuse for absentee ballots. These students are likely to encounter long wait times at the polls, as we’ve seen in many primaries in the past six months due to fewer polling locations and social distancing measures. Students living in states with the absurd in-person voting requirement should not be penalized or forced to decide between going to class and going to the polls. 

I would be remiss not to address the issue of equity at hand. For one, college-age voters are the least represented demographic age group in voter turnout. Secondly, and of grave importance, people of color are drastically underrepresented both in voter turnout and in representativeness of elected officials. Plus, the polling places with the longest wait times tend to be located in communities of color, particularly Black and Latinx communities. On average, Black and Latinx voters report waiting 45% to 46% longer than white voters do. And because many students are not physically living in Berkeley, they will not be able to take advantage of the resources that the city and campus might otherwise offer. Given this, the absence of a noninstructional day seems to be an attack on young voters, particularly Black students, Indigenous students and students of color. 

Some may argue that an election holiday would be used by students to catch up on sleep or engage in activities unrelated to civic participation. I couldn’t disagree more. Our generation is fired up about the fight for racial equity and climate crisis solutions, among many other pressing issues. These issues have galvanized our generation to get more involved in politics and activism for issues it cares about. A noninstructional day allows students to do exactly that; it would allow students not only to vote but also to volunteer as poll workers, a highly demanded position this year, to make calls for campaigns or to help remind others to cast their crucial ballots. 

Election Day is less than two months away, and uncertainty is mounting as we approach Nov. 3. We still don’t know how the coronavirus will progress or if the Postal Service will be at capacity for voting by mail, among many other unforeseen circumstances that could arise. The UC system can’t control most of these factors. However, the UC system can ensure that each student is able to participate in the 2020 election by recognizing Nov. 3 as a noninstructional holiday. Coercing students to attend lectures in the middle of a global pandemic on what is likely to be the most pivotal Election Day of our lives would be more than just hypocritical. It’d be voter suppression.

Elizabeth Grubb is a UC Berkeley student studying political science and the president of the Cal Berkeley Democrats.