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President Bacow, Implement Democracy Day

By Mark R. Haidar, Contributing Opinion Writer
Mark R. Haidar is President of Equal Democracy Project and a JD/MPP Candidate at Harvard Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

The Harvard community has spoken. An unprecedented coalition of students, faculty, and staff is calling on the administration to designate Election Day an instruction-free “Democracy Day” — a University holiday that would institutionalize voting and civic engagement at Harvard for all U.S. federal elections beginning in 2022.

The movement for Democracy Day has united the Harvard community, transcending schools, Harvard affiliations, and political leanings. The Harvard Undergraduate Council and Harvard Graduate Council both unanimously passed a joint resolution signaling their support, as have all 12 graduate school student government bodies; a Community Letter has received more than 200 signatures from Harvard faculty, as well as hundreds more from students, staff, and alumni; and student organizations that span the political spectrum — including both Harvard College and Harvard Law School Republicans and Democrats — all stand in support of Democracy Day.

Beyond this extraordinary cross-campus support, the justification for Democracy Day can be found within Harvard’s institutional commitments. Harvard’s mission is to “educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society.” While voting does not define the scope of engaged citizenship, voting may very well be “the first responsibility of citizenship in a democracy,” as University President Lawrence S. Bacow himself noted in last year’s convocation address.

Further, Harvard has publicly committed itself to achieving 100 percent eligible voter registration, engagement, and turnout. To say that Harvard has repeatedly fallen short of this goal, however, would be a grave understatement. In 2014, only 22 percent of voting-eligible students cast a ballot; in 2016, only 58 percent; and in 2018, only 49 percent.

Absent comparable data for Harvard staff (including our dining, janitorial, and facilities staff), we should be careful not to assume their voting rates are necessarily higher, especially given Harvard’s current employee policy which urges employees to not ask for time off to vote unless doing so is “necessary.”

We can, and must, do better as an entire Harvard community. The administration’s statements hailing the importance of civic engagement are undermined by its current policy of treating Election Day like any other day on the University calendar. Democracy Day would free students and staff of class and work commitments that are known to discourage Election Day-voting. It would also institutionalize and elevate the importance of civic engagement as a Harvard community.

Democracy Day, per its concept paper, would be a day of learning, celebration, reflection, and, most of all, civic action. For instance, Democracy Day’s programming would include opportunities to serve as a poll worker or poll watcher, teach civics lessons to local elementary schoolers, join get-out-the-vote efforts, or participate in dialogues about democracy in America and around the world. In this way, Democracy Day would be inclusive of all members of the Harvard community, not only its eligible voters.

Several other higher education institutions, including Brown University and Columbia University, have already taken this important step of designating Election Day a university holiday. Brown held a faculty vote in September 2020 on the matter, with 80 percent of its faculty voting in favor of designating Election Day a university holiday. As ongoing efforts at other schools continue, and with private companies similarly institutionalizing their own Election Day holidays, Harvard cannot lag behind when it comes to civic engagement.

President Bacow faces a critical choice — and he can choose to have Harvard be a national leader in this moment. While other institutions have designated Election Day a university holiday, none have committed themselves to civic engagement in the way that Democracy Day asks of Harvard. Democracy Day would go a step further than a general holiday, activating University resources to ensure that every member of the Harvard community may engage in participatory citizenship.

Indeed, Democracy Day’s robust programming requires thoughtful planning and strong institutional support. This is why we are calling on the administration to immediately announce the establishment of a Democracy Day Commission, so that we can begin planning, together, the best possible Democracy Day in preparation for November 2022.

Ultimately, Democracy Day is about more than voting or helping work the polls — it is about our values as a Harvard community. Holidays commemorate days that matter to us, and allow us to express who we are and what we stand for. Especially in a time when democracy has been challenged both domestically and abroad, Democracy Day allows us as a Harvard community to speak — and actually live by — our stated democratic values.

Democracy Day aligns with Harvard’s mission, brings us closer to our goal of 100 percent voter turnout, encourages all members of the Harvard community to deepen their civic engagement, models best practices for other higher educational institutions, and enshrines engaged citizenship as a core Harvard community value. It also has the support of all of Harvard’s student governments, as well hundreds of Harvard faculty, staff, and alumni.

President Bacow, we call on you to institutionalize Democracy Day in 2022 and beyond. For one day of the academic calendar, Harvard should commit itself to taking the civic lessons taught inside its classrooms and applying them towards civic action to benefit the community. Only then can Harvard make good on its mission “to educate citizens and citizen leaders.”

Mark R. Haidar is President of Equal Democracy Project and a JD/MPP Candidate at Harvard Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

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