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Md. students ask regents to make Election Day a holiday

In this Sept. 20, 2018 photo, voting booths stand ready in downtown Minneapolis for the opening of early voting in Minnesota. A majority of Americans are concerned that a foreign government might interfere in some way in the 2020 presidential election, whether by tampering with election results, stealing information or by influencing candidates or voter opinion, a new poll shows.(AP Photo/Steve Karnowski)

In this Sept. 20, 2018 photo, voting booths stand ready in downtown Minneapolis for the opening of early voting in Minnesota. (AP Photo/Steve Karnowski)

A panel of students urged the University System of Maryland Board of Regents to consider making Election Day a systemwide holiday to encourage greater civic engagement among students.

“Please consider establishing Election Day as a holiday for all USM students,” Jonathan Townes, a Towson University student, told the board’s Education Policy and Student Life Committee Tuesday. “It is very vital that every student faces the least amount of resistance” to voting.

Townes, University of Maryland, College Park, student Selena Rawlley and University of Maryland, Baltimore County, student Joshua Gray spoke to the committee as part of a panel on the system’s efforts to improve civic engagement, including student voting and student participation in the census this year.

The students were part of a system workshop in November that assessed progress on campus-level efforts to improve civic engagement.

One campus in the system, Towson University, has earned the Carnegie Campus Engagement Classification while University of Maryland, Baltimore; University of Maryland, Baltimore County; and University of Maryland, College Park, have applied and are waiting to hear the results.

Efforts to increase student activity appeared to pay off during 2018’s midterm elections. Student participation in those elections increased more than 19 percentage points from the last midterm elections, to 44.5%, according to the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University.

But those numbers could be greater, the student panel said, if some barriers to voting for students were reduced.

Rawlley pointed to challenges for students trying to figure out how to register as an absentee voter in their home counties or states or whether they want to register to vote on their college campus.

Townes said students want to vote, but “it seems that students are really ignorant of the process.” A lot of that is due to confusion, he said.

The students also pressed the regents to adopt Election Day as a systemwide holiday, noting that the extra free time would reduce a barrier to voting for students focused on their studies.

Jay Perman, the chancellor of the system, noted that opponents would say that in the “real world” people have to work on Election Day. He asked the students how they would respond to that criticism.

“It’s just one day,” Townes said. “It’s one day that has the potential to change history.”

He also suggested that Election Day should be a federal holiday, not just limited to aid for students.

Rawlley also said that providing time for students to vote on Election Day would be consistent with the ideals of higher education, which are different from the values present in the “real world.”

Sam Malhotra, a regent, suggested that paying faculty and staff to have an extra day off would be a real cost to the system.

“That is a cost they should be willing to pay,” Townes said.

Kelly Schulz, the state secretary of commerce and an ex officio member of the board, suggested that early voting in Maryland had given students more time to vote. 

“Election Day lasts for at least 10 days,” she said, noting that the conversation around an Election Day holiday was similar to the conversation in the legislature when it voted to enact early voting. Schulz was a delegate at the time.

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