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College students make a last-ditch effort to make Election Day an academic holiday

Dennis Wieboldt from Boston College (left), Jackson Hurley from Northeastern (center), and William Wright from Harvard Law School are three of the students leading the intercollegiate effort to make Election Day an academic holiday in the region.
Dennis Wieboldt from Boston College (left), Jackson Hurley from Northeastern (center), and William Wright from Harvard Law School are three of the students leading the intercollegiate effort to make Election Day an academic holiday in the region.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

An intercollegiate band of Boston students has mobilized, just before the presidential vote, to make Election Day an academic holiday.

The group is behind a series of student government resolutions, petitions, and events that have swept city-area campuses in the past two weeks. Their collective message? Cancel classes and unrelated events on the day when they say students, faculty, and staff should focus on heading to the polls.

Harvard junior Jack Swanson, who organized the campus petition, said barriers some say would prevent the implementation of such a holiday are “largely imagined.”

“As it stands, there’s nothing really stopping us from making this holiday a reality,” he said. “For a university president to say that this doesn’t work doesn’t hold as much water now as it used to.”

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Organizers at Northeastern University, Boston College, Boston University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Massachusetts Boston, the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, and Harvard’s various schools fixated on the initiative this month, following the lead of several colleges across the country, such as George Washington University and the University of Utah, that now recognize Election Day as a holiday or “non-instructional day” — largely thanks to student advocacy this year.

Members also point to states, including Illinois, New York, and West Virginia, that deemed the day a public holiday.

The Boston-based collective, which is unnamed and unofficial, was created in the first weeks of October and has about eight members.

In that short time, they have contacted on-campus organizations that are spearheading registration drives. They’ve pumped out legislative proposals at student senate meetings and on Zoom calls with the Boston Intercollegiate Government. They’ve garnered endorsements from boards, big and small, with power in their universities.

By banding together, group members have gained clout and confidence, said Boston College junior Dennis Wieboldt.

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“We’re trying to leverage the connection we all have between our schools and show a united front,” said Wieboldt, chairman of the Boston Collegiate Government. “Start with schools, and build from there.”

Students at multiple institutions now involved in the Election Day initiative have tried to sway administrators to adopt the idea in years past — and failed.

More than 40 million people have already voted in this year’s election, including nearly 1.2 million in Massachusetts. But many faculty and staff members may still be planning to cast their ballots on Nov. 3, and nothing should stop them, said advocate and Northeastern junior Jackson Hurley.

“It’s one day,” he said. “We know it may be a minor inconvenience to [declare the holiday] on short notice, but the overwhelming benefit it will provide for the community as a whole — especially faculty and staff — overweighs the cost.”

Universities like MIT and Harvard set aside a few hours of paid time off for employees during Election Day. Others, like Northeastern and BU, encourage professors to be flexible to students' scheduling needs and make necessary accommodations.

Still, most of Boston’s prominent institutions stand by the notion that an entire day off is unessential, especially since the majority of college-connected voters do not cast ballots in person.

“Given the large number of students who are voting by mail and voting absentee in other states, we do not think a single day off is warranted,” a Northeastern spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail to the Globe.

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But student organizers say an academic holiday would encourage their peers to engage in different parts of the voting process, such as volunteering at the polls and replacing older workers more directly threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic, helping with same-day registration, or voter protection hot lines.

“We need help in the community," Hurley said. “If students don’t have class, they’ll definitely be freed up to do other things related to voting. . . . This may actually create some personal habits for young people, to show that it’s not actually that difficult. It’s not actually that daunting or intimidating.”

Time is running out as Election Day nears, but the organizers remain optimistic.

“It’s really the unprecedented nature of this year that makes it, in some ways, more achievable," said Davis Tyler-Dudley, Harvard senior and president of the college’s International Relations Council. “Everything with COVID, with quarantine, with all the amazing work we’ve seen done in the realm of social justice, it makes it a more real goal.”

Members point to other instances where universities have quickly canceled classes for a designated day. Harvard, for example, made Juneteenth a holiday this summer only three days before the date, and Northeastern suspended classes in June to create a day of reflection for victims of police brutality.

“There’s already a precedent,” Swanson said.

If it doesn’t work, student organizers said, they’ll try again for the next election season — and the one after that. And if it does work, they plan to push for a regional or state holiday.

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Because in the long term, “if you’re not emphasizing voting, in and out of universities, then you’re teaching people how to operate within a static system. This way, you’re more of an agent in the process,” said Harvard Law School student body copresident Billy Wright.

Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ditikohli_