February 21, 2008
Last November, more than 50 Columbia University students headed south to Kentucky for the five days leading up to the state’s gubernatorial election. Nobody missed a day of class. In fact, they were doing exactly what their school has wanted its students to do since1968, when the university made the weekend before Election Day a five-day break. For a student body so loath to miss class, the calendar allowed the group to muster a sizeable volunteer force enlisted in get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts for Kentucky’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Steve Beshear. Next fall, they’ll do the same for whichever candidates come out alive of the presidential primaries–although this time, they want to take busloads instead of vans.
Columbia’s Election Day break has a peculiar history. History professor Eric Foner told the Columbia Daily Spectator in 2004 that the university granted students the holiday so they “wouldn’t riot” as they had, lead by the Students for a Democratic Society, earlier in 1968. They took over academic and administrative buildings to protest the university’s expansion into a neighborhood park. Princeton University may be the only other institution that gives students time off before Election Day, having instituted the holiday under similar circumstances in 1971.
The timing uniquely positions the schools to make an impact in key states, since more students are more willing to spend a week traveling when they don’t have to skip class. Other schools should take Columbia’s cue and give students the opportunity to work on the ground in an election. Moreover, it’s a campaign manager’s dream. Busloads of college students are the best kind of labor a campaign or grassroots-lobbying group could want. They cost next to nothing, besides large pizza deliveries and gas money.
According to former Iowa College Democrats president Ben Jacobs, who has worked in electoral politics since graduating from Grinnell College in 2006, large numbers of college students are most important in the few days leading up to the election itself. Young volunteers care passionately about the results of the election, making them both more trustworthy and better at talking to voters than paid canvassers. Unlike labor unions and other organized sources of volunteer hours, they don’t have their own issue agenda or slate of endorsed candidates that may differ from the campaigns’ messages–by and large, they do what the campaign asks. “Harassment equals turnout,” Jacobs said. “If you only have people for three to four days…Election Day is when you have the biggest and most dramatic need for bodies.”