The University of Michigan prides itself on being a civically engaged institution. From hosting a presidential debate to engaging in voter turnout competitions, the school has touted its commitment to voting and political engagement. However, this is not enough: if the University truly wants to empower students to be active and informed participants in our government, it should work to give us the time needed to make it to the polls.
The voter turnout rates of Michigan students in the past few elections have been shockingly low. In 2014, only 14 percent of eligible University students voted. This number was so low that it inspired Professor Edie Goldenberg to found the organization Turn Up Turnout, which engages students and faculty and helped nearly triple voter turnout in 2018 to 41 percent.
While this is a powerful increase, it still means that 59 percent of eligible students did not vote that year.
Even in 2016, when Michigan was a key swing state in the presidential race, only 44.7 percent of University of Michigan students voted.
One likely cause for these numbers is that students lack the necessary time to get to the polls. A Pew research study from 2014 found that among registered voters who chose not to vote, 67 percent said they did not have the time to vote, and of that group, 35 percent had specific work or school conflicts.
This is something that I think all college students can understand. Between classes, studying, activities and jobs, it can be hard to find a free moment in the day, much less a few free hours to go and vote. This is especially true for low-income students, who are often working multiple jobs.
Getting to the polls from campus can be a struggle in itself. The city of Ann Arbor has divided the area around the campus into five electoral districts, meaning that many students live far away from where their polling place is. Given that many students do not have access to a car, they have to walk long distances or wait for public transportation in order to vote, both of which take time.
Once students get to the polls they can sometimes face two hour waits, as was seen in Ann Arbor in 2016.
As we head into the 2020 election, there will likely be many “get out to vote” efforts on campus, including registration drives, voting themed events and the buzz around hosting a presidential debate. All of these factors will likely lead to higher levels of voter turnout in 2020. While this is a great thing, it also means that there will be even longer lines at the polls.
The most effective way to solve this problem would be for the University to cancel classes on Election Day. This would allow students the time needed to make it to the polls and perform their civic duty. As a pragmatist, I recognize that the chances of the University closing on election day are quite small. However, individual professors have a great deal of leeway over whether they hold classes that day. One of the best ways for students to ensure they and their fellow classmates have the time to vote is by addressing the issue with their professors. Even if professors choose not to cancel class they can decide not to take attendance or not hold any assessments on that day. Even these small actions can make a big difference in encouraging students to go vote.
Some may argue that students would view this simply as a free day and not use the time to go to the polls. However, I have faith in my fellow students. So many of us are passionate about different issues. We chose this university because of its reputation as a place of engagement. We want to vote and we want the University to give us all the time and resources needed to make that a reality. That is why we must push to cancel classes on Election Day and help us become a community where all students have the opportunity to make their voices heard.
Isabelle Schindler can be reached at email@example.com.