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Harvard Needs Democracy Days

By Allison G. Lee
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

“Democracy Days” — a student-led proposal to designate U.S. federal election days as free of classes and full of civic engagement programming — are an excellent idea. We join the chorus of over 1,200 Harvard affiliates (including more than 200 faculty members) urging University President Lawrence S. Bacow to make concrete the University’s commitment to developing the “citizens and citizen leaders” of tomorrow (of which we are constantly reminded) through their implementation.

The Democracy Day proposal calls for university-sponsored programming and community engagement to substitute conventional classes, allowing affiliates time to comfortably vote as well as to reflect on the value of our democratic ideals. At its core, it calls for a pause in the Harvard rat race for the sake of civic duty and contemplation.

This proposal differs from previous calls to designate election day as a University holiday (calls we have supported) in how its organizers envision facilitating a healthy, civic-minded mania overtaking campus in lieu of classes. Rather than a plain day off, Democracy Days’s architects make clear in their impressive, 16-page proposal that they envision federal election days being spent flexing our citizenship muscle: whether that be via voting, volunteering as a poll worker, serving the Cambridge and Boston community, or participating in educational programming.

We believe instituting Democracy Days would prove incredibly beneficial. Civic engagement is an unambiguous good, and devoting a day solely to it would signal Harvard’s commitment to community engagement and civic action, and help usher in a campus culture that puts a genuine premium on these acts as well.

President Bacow says that every member of the Harvard community — staff, students, and faculty — who wants to vote can. Still, we contend that creating a University holiday would make voting, which Bacow has hailed as the “first responsibility of citizenship in a democracy,” instantly less stressful and streamlined, as the burden is taken off the individual to request time off to partake.

Moreover, civic engagement is not just limited to voting — Harvard students can act as poll workers, drive people to the polls, or collaborate with Cambridge and Boston groups to serve our community, among countless other ways to engage with Democracy Day. There is also symbolic value to Harvard delineating a day to democracy; though admin talks a big talk about civic commitment, how many concrete examples of action can they actually point to?

Democracy Days have the potential to be a better version of Harvard’s annual Day of Service, with a focus on one cause — civic engagement — facilitating more concrete and meaningful outcomes.

Designating Election Day as an instruction-free day is also not unprecedented: Brown and Columbia already do this. Harvard can and should learn from its peer institutions and implement Democracy Days. Doing so would give students a new and universal pathway to meaningfully engage with both democracy and the broader Cambridge community. It matters that Harvard students invest in being responsible Cambridge residents and feel a sense of connection to the place that (in normal times, anyway) serves as their home for four years. Democracy Days present a wonderful way to facilitate this symbiotic engagement.

And even if our peers perceive our day for democracy as a “day off” in which they don’t have academic commitments, that’s still a valid use of the day — elections are consequential, and can cause nontrivial stress for many people. Even the Democracy Day proposal recognizes wellness programming as a form of democratic activity. Engaging in democracy need not be exclusively political: It can also be personal and well being focused.

The last time this Editorial Board voiced support for an election day holiday came weeks before the 2020 General Election, which we concede made our ask a steep one. Yet Democracy Days’ organizers have set their sights on the next midterm elections, which will take place in the faraway land of November 2022. Harvard has ample time and a detailed proposal to work with, which goes as far as to outline the bureaucratic structure under which the Days would be carried out — not to mention the enthusiasm of so many. This is feasible.

Harvard, which prides itself as the place where America’s future leaders are created, should allow its affiliates to tangibly partake in democracy without having to balance University-related obligations for one, crucial day. Engaging in civic and community action is important, and breaking from the Harvard bubble to serve communities in Cambridge and Boston is valuable. The Democracy Day proposal, which students have put thought and labor into crafting, facilitates both. All Harvard has to do is say yes.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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