Give Students A Break—An Election Break
A former speechwriter and strategist for causes, candidates, and members of Congress, Leonard Steinhorn has written on American politics and culture for major newspapers and magazines, and is currently the director of the Public Communications department at American University and a member of HNN's board of directors.
Around this time next year, right after Election Day, the chattering class might once again bemoan the fact that young people are disenfranchising themselves by not voting in numbers even close to their proportion of the population. As in elections past, college presidents will lecture about civic responsibility and professors will write op-eds about apathy among the young. And then they'll do nothing about it.
But there is something that can be done.
According to the Census Bureau, 18-24 year olds represent about 13 percent of the voting age population. Yet in 2010, they made up only six percent of all voters, diluting their electoral strength by more than half. Compare that with those 65 and over, who voted in such large numbers that they constituted 21 percent of the 2010 vote even though they made up just 17 percent of adult Americans. Younger voters did a bit better in 2008, constituting 10 percent of all voters, and while that was one of this cohort's best turnouts in years, it still fell way short of truly representing their percentage of the population.
Elections in America are largely determined by the middle-aged and elderly, who make up a far higher percentage of voters than their actual share of the adult population. In other words, elections rarely reflect the will of the nation -- rather, they reflect the will of those who vote, which means they rarely reflect the views of young Americans whose futures are most at stake. Small wonder that campaigns focus on issues far more relevant to the old than the young. Ours is a democracy whose eyes are fixated on the rear-view mirror, not the road ahead.
As an educator, allow me to propose one small solution to get young people involved and voting: every college and university should institute a fall break wrapped around Election Day, giving students time off not only to vote but also to knock on doors and become a vital part of the democracy whose reins they will soon take.
Many students who vote do so by absentee ballot, but many also complain about the confusing absentee ballot maze that often frustrates them and keeps them from exercising their franchise. Others face registration hassles if they want to vote where they go to school. A fall civic break will enable them to go home and vote as well as participate in get-out-the-vote efforts and all the kitchen table conversations that animate our democracy.
Many colleges already have fall breaks, but these are typically in October. Why not shift it a few weeks later and call it a civic break? Changing the dates would be an easy administrative matter.
Fully half of all 18-21 year olds attend a college or university, as do nearly a third of 22-24 year olds. Yet barely a handful of colleges even give Election Day off, and few schools urge professors not to schedule tests or other important assignments that day.
One exception in 2008 was Liberty University, founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, which initiated a registration drive on campus, canceled Election Day classes, and provided bus service to get its students to the polls. Election Day is a state holiday in Hawaii, so the University of Hawaii system is closed that day. That's mostly it.
In my research, I could find only two universities that take youth civic participation seriously enough to give their students a fall election break. Since 1968, Columbia University has given students Election Day off as well as the Monday before it, which gives students plenty of time to go home or hit the road on behalf of a political campaign. Princeton gives a week off around Election Day, which it has been doing since 1971.
Most college leaders give lip service to civic participation, joining coalitions that promote youth civic responsibility and signing hortatory letters about the need to get young people involved in our democracy. Yet with a stroke of the pen they could initiate fall civic breaks that would truly put their institutions behind their words.
The need for a fall election break is even more compelling because some states are trying to dampen and discourage student turnout. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, of the seven states that recently passed laws requiring photo identification for voting, three of them -- Texas, South Carolina, and Tennessee -- disallow student IDs from the list of approved identification, including student IDs issued by state universities. Wisconsin has so many stipulations that it effectively excludes most student ID cards as well. In case you're wondering, while Texas does not allow student IDs, it does allow voters to use a concealed handgun permit as proof of identity.
The 18-24 cohort voted overwhelmingly for President Obama in 2008 and remains his strongest base of support. It should surprise no one that Republicans control all of the states that have banned the use of student IDs. As Bill Clinton said earlier this year, "This is not rocket science. They are trying to make the 2012 election look more like the 2010 election than the 2008 election."
But it really shouldn't matter which party young people support this election or next. The goal should be to get more young people voting and expressing their views about our collective future. To those college students who say their vote doesn't matter and it's not worth the hassle registering and voting absentee, just remember Florida in 2000, where a trickle of votes changed not only an election but the course of our history.
What we need is a massive petition drive on college campuses across the nation to make this happen. Students, pressure your institutions for a fall civic break. Professors, stop pontificating about youth apathy and get your faculty senates to pass resolutions. College presidents, stop giving speeches about civic engagement and put the full weight of your institution behind it.
Just imagine an America where politicians actually had to address the needs of youth as much as the aged. Wouldn't that change the national dialogue for the better?
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