As the nation prepares for a monumental election, it is critical that all citizens have equitable access — and time — to vote. Holding classes and exams on Election Day poses a nearly insurmountable challenge to early and in-person voting for many students, faculty and staff at the University. Marginalized and low-income students and workers face systemic barriers to casting their ballots — transportation to and from the polls, hours-long wait times and risks associated with the ongoing pandemic, among others.
While early and absentee voting provide flexibility in casting ballots, analysis shows that they don’t actually eliminate barriers to voting. These methods of voting only spread out the already existing pool of voters — they don’t expand access to people prevented from voting by systemic barriers. For example, someone hindered from getting to the polls Nov. 3 is equally as likely to be unable to vote at other times — despite increased opportunities in early voting. Well-founded concerns about postal delays for mail-in ballots have also caused some to commit exclusively to voting in person. Making it easier for people to vote — expanding their fundamental democratic right — requires systemic change.
Between schoolwork, class attendance, employment and extracurricular activities, there is little free time left in the day for students to transport themselves to the polls and wait in line to cast a ballot. Similarly, faculty and staff spend their days teaching courses, grading assignments, planning lessons or otherwise supporting the University’s general operations. As long as the University is holding classes, its community members will experience difficulty getting to the polls and be disincentivized from voting.
These barriers become even clearer when factoring in transportation to and from the polls. While students living on Grounds most often vote at on-Grounds precincts, students living off Grounds in the City of Charlottesville must find transportation to and from one of the City’s polling locations — sometimes miles away from Grounds. For students without access to cars or ride-hailing services, this can mean an hours-long trip on the Charlottesville public transportation network, which many consider unreliable. Moreover, using ride-hailing services or public transportation poses significant public health risks as a result of the ongoing pandemic.
Accordingly, students at the University continue their years-long fight for the cancelation of classes and exams on Election Day. Most recently, for the 2018 midterm elections, students lobbied administration and circulated a faculty pledge to cancel classes and exams. Even with Virginia’s recent pro-democracy legislative reforms — including declaring Election Day a state holiday — the University administration has remained idle.
This conversation isn’t new — it’s the same story every year. And nothing has changed.
The University has no excuse not to institute a blanket policy canceling classes and exams on Election Day. With Election Day now a Virginia state holiday, it is nonsensical for the University — not only a state institution, but the Commonwealth’s flagship university — to continue normal operations.
The University is already acknowledging and accounting for some of the impediments to voting for faculty and staff. In a recent email, it asked managers to “provide employees who wish to vote in person a reasonable period of time to do so — about two hours.” Despite obviously recognizing the need for systemic policy change, the University refuses to afford students the same opportunity it does for faculty and staff. Student votes are of equal importance, and students must be given an equal opportunity to vote.
In its “Great and Good” strategic plan, the University proclaims its “overriding purpose” to serve American democracy. It is strikingly hypocritical of the University to declare such a purpose, and then abandon the sentiment as soon as free and fair democracy demands systemic change to the University’s operations. The University must cancel classes on Election Day to make it easier — and fully encourage — student, faculty and staff electoral engagement. If the University refuses to enact systemic changes, faculty must make accommodations which allow students to vote without penalty. The health and continuity of our democracy demands it.
We can't afford to sit this election out. And the University shouldn’t make us.
Editor's note: Wondering how to cast your ballot early? Check out The Cavalier Daily’s guide to early voting for more information.
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