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The Push to Make Future Election Days a Day of Civic Service

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Oct 22 2020
Diana Aguilera

Classes, internships, extracurricular activities. It’s no surprise that a typical Stanford student’s schedule begins in the early morning and ends late at night. Simply put, finding time and energy is always a challenge — especially now considering the added stress of a global pandemic. With the US presidential election around the corner, the Center’s honors senior Jonathan Lipman and his fellow Stanford student Sean Casey presented a proposal to the Faculty Senate to make accommodations for civic engagement on Election Day. “Now more than ever, the Stanford community is being called to serve outside of the classroom.”

As The Stanford Daily reported, the Faculty Senate enthusiastically agreed and passed a motion urging instructors to “support civic engagement and reflection by students” by cancelling courses and recording lectures on Election Day.

“Jonathan and his colleagues spearheaded a collaborative campaign, in the best tradition of student activism, to convince the university to make a commitment to the importance of democracy,” says Rob Reich, faculty director of the Center for Ethics in Society. “Because of his efforts, students, staff, and faculty will have time off to vote and in the coming years the university will consider making Election Day an official university holiday.”

The original proposal for the “Day of Civic Service” asked Stanford to remove academic and professional obligations on Election Day to give students, faculty, and staff the agency to vote. But because of the short timeline and the fact that the Faculty Senate does not have control over the academic calendar, the original resolution was modified.

For Lipman, an Ethics in Society honors student majoring in philosophy and computer science, voting is an important component of civic engagement, however, there’s more to it. “I think now, particularly young people have other duties on Election Day — driving older relatives to drop box sites, helping older relatives fill out mail-in ballots, walking with them to the polls, being a poll worker or an election judge.”

The proposal, spearheaded by StanfordVotes and the ASSU, is rooted in the belief that individuals should have a designated time to recognize their own democratic duties. Students are encouraged to participate in intentional programming whether it’s serving as a poll worker, participating in the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project, virtually attending an educational event, or deliberating and reflecting with friends and family.

Promoting civic engagement shouldn't be an afterthought, Lipman says. In fact, it’s written into Stanford’s founding grant, which affirms that Stanford’s purpose is to “promote the public welfare… and inculcate love and reverence for the great principles of government.” Lipman says the Faculty Senate’s support of the proposal acknowledges the founding grant and sends a clear message that Stanford values civic engagement and participation.

In the United States, only two peer-institutions, Columbia University and Brown University, have designated Election Day as an official university holiday. Brown made the decision in early September this year. Columbia began giving students time off since 1968. Harvard hasn’t followed suit, but students are pressuring the university to take action. On the Stanford campus, to date only the Law School has committed to cancelling classes on Election Day. The effort to bring this initiative to Stanford was guided by faculty advisors including the Center’s Director Rob Reich, FSI Director Michael McFaul, and political science professors Josh Ober and Adam Bonica.

While the stakes are exceptionally high this election year, the hope is that this proposal will help build a more robust culture of civic participation at Stanford and encourage students to develop lifelong habits of civic engagement.

Days before the Senate meeting, Lipman and Casey wrote an op-ed in The Stanford Daily urging the university to serve as a model and help strengthen American democracy.

“On Election Day, we should shed the ordinary roles of faculty, student and staff in favor of our shared role of citizen, our collective hope for the future. And no matter what happens this November, we’ll be a better university for it.”

"The Buzz" is the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society's media portal for ethics-related news on campus and beyond. We review events and speakers, and we feature initiatives that are of broad interest. A wide range of voices author the articles, including undergraduate students.