Election Day Should be a Campus Holiday: It’s time for Swarthmore’s administration to live up to its institutional ideals

In 2018, the Editorial Board wrote that Swarthmore’s failure to recognize election day as a federal holiday conflicted with its commitment to increase student turnout and promote civic participation. In the four years since, our nation’s aspirational commitment to representative democracy continues to face uncertain horizons. Though Swarthmore’s rate of student voter turnout has increased, we still lag behind other peer institutions. Given increasing levels of polarizations, social inequality, and the threats posed by climate change, electoral participation remains an important social responsibility. 

In a Forbes column published in 2020, President Val Smith and James Madison University President Jonathan Alger ʼ86 argued that higher education institutions played an indispensable role in fostering civic engagement on campuses. They wrote, “Our institutions are in the business of developing and disseminating knowledge, and instilling in our students the skills and abilities that enable them to contribute to creating a more just and inclusive democracy.” 

The administration’s decision, then, to hold scheduled classes on election day falls short of Swarthmore’s expressed institutional commitment to social responsibility. 

In 2020, Swarthmore’s administration canceled classes on election day in order for students to participate in the presidential election. The reasoning behind this decision invites many questions — did defeating the Trump presidency warrant special consideration that would not apply to midterm elections? Is the campus administration suggesting that certain elections are more important than others? Given the urgent problems that will disproportionately affect our generation over the next few decades, the administration’s embrace of any of these positions would be questionable at best. 

Although less high-profile than 2020’s presidential contest, this year’s midterm elections are critically important for determining the course of our nation’s future, particularly after the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade. Many election observers and experts perceive the race for the United States Senate in Pennsylvania as crucial to partisan control of Congress and the roughly 650 registered voters on campus—according to Delaware County registration records—could have a significant impact on a close election. 

Particularly, as voter suppression has become a growing point of concern, the college should leverage its public platform and influence to maximize student turnout. Throughout Pennsylvania and other states, Republican partisans have engaged in widespread voter suppression campaigns targeting college students. Declaring election day a holiday would allow the college to stake out a clear stance on the importance of resisting forces that seek to keep certain voters from turning out on Election Day. 

One of the major arguments against canceling classes on election day is disruption to syllabi, particularly for honors seminar courses that only meet once a week. In future years, the college administration could announce election day as a holiday well before the beginning of the following academic year — giving professors ample opportunity to craft syllabi with this in mind. 

While the college administration has signaled its intention to advise professors to provide flexibility to students trying to travel to one of Swarthmore borough’s three polling locations, it has so far rejected calls to cancel classes — let alone establish election day as a campus holiday. Though we appreciate this intermediate administrative step, it does not go far enough to ensure equitable access to voting. Students involved, for instance, in time-sensitive theatrical productions and discussion-based seminars shouldn’t be forced to choose between voting and missing out on course material or neglecting obligations.

Moreover, for the many staff members for whom Swarthmore real estate prices are prohibitive, traveling to polling locations during college-granted breaks may not be possible. The constraints of staff members in needing to be present on campus to fulfill professional responsibilities underscores why simply canceling courses falls short in enabling the entire college community to take part in the democratic process. 

Swarthmore should join the growing ranks of institutions that not only cancel courses on election day, but provide a federal holiday to all staff members. Brown and Columbia have been doing it for years. Nearby Lehigh University is planning to cancel classes on November 8. It’s Swarthmore’s turn to meet this moment and put its institutional commitments into action. 

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