Voters cast their ballots in downtown Denver on Tuesday, March 3, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

College students have the capability to decide presidential elections — if they vote.

Not having classes on Election Day would increase their likelihood of doing so by giving students the time to vote in person and wait in line as long as needed or to even go further and participate in the process of helping others do so.

Few colleges have taken the step to maximize participation in this year’s presidential election and will be holding classes on Nov. 3, either in-person or virtually, thereby requiring students to choose between furthering their education and carrying out their civic responsibility.

Thurgood Marshall, Jr. and Steven R. Okun

Last week, however, Colorado College (“CC”) canceled classes after second-year student Bennett Okun submitted a formal request to the college and promoted the idea in the campus newspaper.

Acting provost and faculty dean Claire Garcia, in a message also signed by Okun, announced the cancellation of classes “so that our students may have the time to focus on their role in the process, whether it be volunteering to work at the polls in a year when fewer people are available to volunteer because of the threat of COVID-19 or simply having the time to wait in lines that may be hours long to vote.”

There are 2,500 students at CC. 

Across Colorado, there are nearly 280,000 college students.  

With 36,006 students at University of Colorado Boulder and 34,814 students attending Colorado State University, university administrators there alone could pave the way for a much higher turnout this fall if they, too, cancel classes on Election Day.

It’s bad enough obstacles traditionally exist for college students to vote even after they register — with local election officials targeting their ballots for challenges or not providing polling places on or near campuses.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

This year, the coronavirus pandemic and heightened attention to election security add unique challenges.

The least colleges can do would be to cancel classes that day.

The issues for which the youngest cohort of voters have the most passion are not the same as for older voters, who tend to vote on the economy and, this year, the handling of the coronavirus.

College students care deeply about the environment, Black Lives Matter, economic opportunity, the Supreme Court, gun control and a woman’s right to choose with the next president and Congress having significant impact on how these issues will be addressed. Students have not been this motivated to vote in years.

Further, studies suggest that once someone casts a first vote, they are more likely to remain engaged and continue to vote in subsequent elections. We need to do everything possible that students do not miss this election and thereby be more likely be disengaged citizens.

Yes, college administrators have much on which to focus now when dealing with the pandemic. We get it. But how hard should the decision be to cancel class with the presidency at stake?

Students could also use the time off to fill the void created by older generations who often serve as poll workers but will not do so in 2020 to preserve their health during the pandemic.

After this election, the country can turn to making Election Day a national holiday. Then, college and university administrators will not have the burden placed on them.

Many countries across the world hold elections either on a weekend or a public holiday. 

“The vote is precious. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democratic society, and we must use it,” the late civil rights icon and Georgia Congressman John Lewis often said. “And so you must go out all across America and tell young people, and people not so young, tell all of us: Vote. The vote is powerful.”

We owe it to this generation to do everything possible to have the opportunity to exercise that power.

As we wrote in The Fulcrum earlier, Congress can address the issue nationally and right the wrong simply by moving Presidents Day to the first Tuesday in November — thereby making Election Day a national holiday and giving everyone the opportunity to vote at no cost to their income or studies.

Part of the rationale against a new national holiday appears to be the economic cost, which would be substantial. This solution addresses that by shifting an existing holiday from a date without particular significance beyond the prominence of presidents born in February.

Doubtless George Washington and Abraham Lincoln would appreciate having their birthdays honored with far more people participating in democracy rather than being associated with mattress sales.

But we cannot wait for that to happen. College and university presidents should cancel classes now. They should not even have to be asked. What are you waiting for?

Thurgood Marshall, Jr., and Steven R. Okun served in the Clinton administration as White House Cabinet Secretary and Deputy General Counsel at the Department of Transportation, respectively. Mr. Marshall practices law in Washington. Mr. Okun serves as senior adviser for global strategic consultancy McLarty Associates based in Singapore. Bennett Okun is their research intern.

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