More than 600 Harvard affiliates signed an open letter asking University President Lawrence S. Bacow to designate federal Election Days as instruction-free “Democracy Days” that would offer a holiday to employees and students and provide civic engagement programming.
The letter, which has been signed by more than 400 current students and nearly 150 faculty and staff members, comes after petitions in the fall unsuccessfully lobbied Bacow to designate Election Day as a University holiday.
Nearly 50 campus organizations and more than 60 alumni — including former Board of Overseers President Michael H. Brown ’83 and former Institute of Politics Director C. M. Trey Grayson ’94 — also signed onto the letter.
The Democracy Day proposal, which was endorsed in a joint resolution by the Undergraduate and Graduate Councils, calls for a designating a day of civic engagement programming on Election Days. It argues that the plan would strengthen the University’s ties with Cambridge residents and increase voter participation among Harvard affiliates.
Alexander K. Park ’23, who helped organize the petition and co-chairs the Harvard Votes Challenge, said the petition calls for “a day on democracy, rather than a day off.”
“Rather than just having a day off — which is a very passive day — a day on democracy would really enshrine democratic values and ideals into everybody, which is why we want this robust programming on Democracy Day,” he said.
Psychology professor Steven A. Pinker, who signed on to the petition, wrote in an email that Democracy Days could have “enormous” educational potential if the University plans events to teach “the history, workings, and effects of democracy.”
Law School professor Jonathan L. Zittrain, another faculty signatory, likewise applauded the petition’s organizers for going “beyond the binary” decision of whether to hold or cancel classes on Election Day by proposing a new plan to highlight civic learning and action.
“Our country's civic bonds have been fraying, and experimenting with, and modeling, ways to repair and strengthen them seems core to the University's identity,” Zittrain wrote in an email.
Several of Harvard’s peer institutions, including Brown University and Columbia University, provide days off on Election Day. Lily Richman ’24, an organizer of the Democracy Day effort and co-chair of the Harvard Votes Challenge, said the proposal’s civic action programming would distinguish Harvard’s plans from the holidays offered by other schools.
The Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Kennedy School reported that 48.6 percent of eligible student voters at Harvard cast ballots in 2018 — up from 22.4 percent in 2014.
Park and Richman said they are confident that time off for Election Day would have improved voter turnout among Harvard affiliates in 2020.
“As we head out of the 2020 election year, it felt really, really important to take these things that we care about so much — civic engagement and voter turnout — and institutionalize them to make sure that these processes are even easier for people going forward,” Richman said.
Harvard’s Human Resources policies currently state that employees “must be given time off with pay if such time off is necessary” for them to vote. The policy also says, however, that “normally such time off is not necessary because the period of time the polls are open extends beyond most normal work schedules.”
Mark R. Haidar, a Harvard Law School and Kennedy School student who helped organize the Democracy Day effort, said the proposal was released now in hopes of Harvard adopting it ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
Government professor Steven R. Levitsky, one of the original faculty signatories, wrote in an email that he signed on to the petition because it “is a critical moment to stand up for democracy, voting, and voting rights.”
“The students are right and Bacow was wrong,” he wrote. “Election Day should be a holiday, as it is in most democracies. Harvard can be a national leader in embracing and promoting civic participation on our own campus.”
University spokesperson Jason A. Newton wrote that school leaders are aware of the Democracy Day proposal.
“As President Bacow and other University leaders have expressed, Harvard encourages everyone in our community to exercise their right to vote, as it is indeed one of the pillars of our democracy,” Newton wrote in an emailed statement. “One way the University supports this important right is through human resources policies that provide employees with flexible, paid time off for voting.”
Pointing to a state elections law passed in Georgia earlier this month that adds new restrictions on voting in the state, Winthrop House Resident Dean Linda D. M. Chavers wrote in an email that providing time off for affiliates to vote would help improve voting accessibility.
“It’s nonsensical to declare commitment to being an anti-racist institution but not support any steps towards making voting more accessible,” she wrote.
“Voting does not exist in a vacuum,” she continued. “If you want to be anti-racist then you support a more equitable and accessible electoral process.”
—Staff writer Jasper G. Goodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Jasper_Goodman.
—Staff writer Kelsey J. Griffin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @kelseyjgriffin.