Brandon Judge, ’21, is a member of Hawk the Vote. Hawk the Vote is a student-led initiative to cancel classes on Election Day and develop meaningful, impactful, and habit-forming civic engagement opportunities. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author only.
“I just didn’t have time.”
“I have an exam the next day!”
“My friends told me they were stuck there for hours!”
These are some of the all too common reasons why Lehigh students struggle to make their way to the ballot box on Election Day. Even in an ordinary year — under ordinary circumstances — these responses are common. But as county election boards gear up around the country for this year’s General Election in November, they will face
new obstacles as COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on traditional voting procedures. States around the country, including Pennsylvania, are cutting back their polling places due to safety concerns and lack of staffing.
In the face of these challenges, Lehigh students are at risk of facing an even more nightmarish scenario at the polls than they have in years past. Now more than ever, Lehigh must step up to ensure that our access to the polls remains as open as possible.
Lehigh must cancel classes on Election Day.
While COVID-19 presents a host of new issues, access to the polls has been a recurring problem for Lehigh students. Why do so many students believe that they don’t have the time to go vote? Oftentimes, they don’t. In 2016 and 2018, a casual observer of our historical polling place, the Litzenberger House, could see a line that stretched far around the outside of the building. This was especially true in the late afternoon and evening, when most students finished their day of classes.
If you were unlucky enough to be caught at its longest, you could be waiting in line to vote for hours. Recent graduates routinely repeat the same anecdotal experience of voting in person for the 2016 election: the line was four, five, six hours long, and many students had to leave their place in line to avoid being penalized for missing class.
In context, the South Side is an area that has been consistently underfunded, ignored, and neglected by the government at all levels. And unfortunately, access to election resources is no different. Thus, Lehigh students and the local Bethlehem community vote at a polling place that clearly serves too many constituents for its size, resulting in wait times that are several hours long, during exam season, no less. This is a sacrifice that many students simply will not choose to make over valuable studying time.
Meanwhile, a study by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration found that only 1.5 percent of polling places had wait times exceeding an hour. While it does not offer data on our specific precinct, the overall average line length found in the study was 7.8 people. As many Lehigh students know firsthand, our line to vote may be 10 times that size in the late afternoon. This is, of course, an outrageous injustice to Lehigh students and the Bethlehem community, and should spur Lehigh’s administration to action.
Fortunately, Lehigh can have a direct impact on this wait time through the cancellation of classes.
Not only would turnout among students almost certainly increase, but wait times for voting would be lower with more time to vote. No longer would most students be forced to vote in a three or four hour window after their classes and other extracurriculars end. Their schedules will be free from the time polls open until the time they close. And as a bonus, the local community that also votes in our precinct will face shorter wait times as well.
Along with these local issues, it’s undeniable that there is a political revolution underway on a nationwide scale. Between three separate crises of health, the economy, and the collective awakening to our racist institutions, conditions are ripe for real, tangible change in our country.
Even though our present condition as a nation is bleak, now more than ever a better world is possible and within our reach. But for us to secure this better future on the horizon, we must be directly involved in the political process: We must vote. And as the global, forward-thinking institution that Lehigh claims to be, Lehigh must facilitate this incredible opportunity to directly impact our future. If Lehigh truly wishes to live up to its promise of challenging its students to be the leaders of the future, it should listen to what student leaders are calling for around the country: cancel classes on Election Day.
This year, it is time for Lehigh to act. It may challenge some professors and departments to reschedule class curriculums, but this effort goes beyond academics. There is not a single lab, lecture, or assignment that can override the importance of exercising our right to vote in any election, never mind in the most consequential one of our lifetime — and for most of us, our first presidential election. It is necessary that Lehigh ensures that each student can make their voice heard in November.
It is time for Lehigh to cancel classes on Election Day.