This semester will look a bit different: The Big House won’t be opening its doors. Your favorite bars and coffee shops won’t be opening theirs. However, we, student organizers of the Michigan 2020 Safe Election Proposal, believe the door to safe and easy voting should not be closed this fall.
When Wayne State University declared Election Day a holiday in early February, Law School Dean Richard Bierschbach made reference to alumnus Judge Damon Keith’s famous quote: “Democracies die behind closed doors.”
“It also refers to doors to the voting booth,” Bierschbach said in a statement to the community. “The ability to cast a vote is the most fundamental accountability mechanism there is.” Wayne State made it clear that it would prop open those doors for members of its community — that it would take a stand for democracy.
Additionally, in a conversation with the Michigan 2020 Safe Election Proposal student organizers, Dr. M. Roy Wilson, president of Wayne State, said, “We didn’t do it to blaze some trail or to start a movement … We did it in the interest of our students and staff and I think our (Michigan) universities need to look at it from their own particular perspective. Like I said, it’s not a trivial decision … there are a lot of other priorities that one can think about, so it just depends on what the priorities of your university are and how it stacks up.”
Fast forward to today and Wayne State’s decision is even more important — the novel coronavirus pandemic is tearing through the United States, the country is more divided than ever and the USPS is being dismantled, rendering mail-in-voting unpredictable and unreliable.
Where do the University of Michigan’s priorities lie?
The University claims it is committed to civic engagement, but ignores the roadblocks created by coursework that students face on Election Day. On average, U.S. universities had 50.4 percent voter turnout in 2016 and U-M’s voter turnout was 44.7 percent. With that in mind, the Census found the number one reason individuals don’t vote is because they are “too busy.” The door is too heavy. If the University’s priorities were really aligned with civic engagement, it would do more.
The University claims it is committed to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), but ignores how coursework and quotidian University operations restrict the ability of BIPOC and low-income community members to get to the polls and fulfill their civic duty.
“Whatever the circumstances may be, it’s just not that easy for everyone to be able to go to the polling stations,” Dr. Wilson said in regard to his decision to cancel classes on Election Day. “It’s easy for people like me. I can just postpone a meeting … but there are people, you know, who punch a clock and are expected to be there at a certain time. Typically saying that you were voting is not something that is considered a legitimate excuse.” If the University’s priorities were really aligned with DEI, it would do more.
The University also claims it is committed to public health and safety, but ignores the health risks that an unprecedented global pandemic poses for both our campus and the broader Ann Arbor community this Election Day. From an internal email, the clerk’s office alone is expecting a shortage of 500+ poll workers. Around 4,000 workers are needed in Detroit. Poll workers are typically elderly and at higher risk for severe health outcomes due to COVID-19. Proposal 3, which guaranteed no-reason absentee voting in Michigan, might alleviate some in-person voting concerns, but it creates new demands for workers counting absentee ballots. Poll worker shortages in Wisconsin and Georgia led to poll location closures, long lines, and thus higher risk of both being unable to vote and COVID-19 transmission due to more time spent at the polls. If the University’s priorities were really aligned with public health and safety in the context of this upcoming election, it would do more to guarantee that its students, faculty and staff vote safely, including alleviating poll worker shortages in the community.
On paper, the University claims to care about civic engagement, DEI, public health and safety. However, if University officials truly upheld these values, then they would find solutions to the crises we are facing. The University mission is to develop “leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future,” but how is it fulfilling this goal when it imposes barriers to the most fundamental mechanism to do so?
There is little reason to hold synchronous courses (or have courses at all) on Election Day — especially given the fact that approximately 70 percent of fall semester courses for undergraduates are already remote. We have a feasible solution that over 1,700 members of the University community have signed. Hundreds of faculty members have committed to canceling courses or offering asynchronous course options on Nov. 3. Over 500 students, faculty and staff have committed to working at the polls if there were no synchronous courses on Election Day.
The University of Michigan has been presented with the opportunity to break down its self-imposed doors to the voting booth this November. Will it embody the spirit of the Leaders and the Best, and encourage its community to “challenge the present and enrich the future,” or will it fall behind as others realize their own responsibility to practice what they preach?
Benjamin Brennan is a Ph.D. student in the School of Public Health, Dept. of Biostatistics and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Lindsey Haughton is a sophomore in the College of Literature, Science & the Arts and can be reached at email@example.com. Nina Masters is a Ph.D. student in the School of Public Health, Dept. of Epidemiology and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.