A Call for Professors to Consider Cancelling Classes on Election Day, and for Employers to Consider Letting Employees Leave Early

Democracy is important. Democracy is fragile.

Those were my reflections a few weeks ago, when my family gathered for the unveiling of my grandfather’s gravestone — my grandfather who escaped Nazi Germany while most of his family was sent to concentration camps, and who then started a new life in the U.S. and enlisted to fight on behalf of his new country. (More on my grandfather’s story in a moment.)

What can we do as individuals to protect democracy? We can vote, of course. But those of us who have the privilege of being professors or employers can potentially do more.

Democracy can die from apathy and neglect. Our forefathers and foremothers sacrificed to create and preserve our democratic institutions. It is our responsibility to protect these institutions for future generations.

It is my view that Election Day should be a national holiday. Our elections only work through the efforts of numerous volunteers. If you ever have the chance, I recommend that you ask one of your local election officials about the logistics of voting. You will be amazed.

There is great need for volunteers to carry out the many tasks needed for successful elections. It is time-consuming even just to educate oneself about candidates and issues to be an informed voter. Yet there is little time for such things in the busy week of a typical student or worker.

Of course, policies vary, and not all professors or employers may have the discretion to cancel classes or to allow employees to leave early on Election Day. But many do. The universities that I am most familiar with all grant professors the discretion to cancel classes to allow for important professional or personal commitments. It is not uncommon for a professor to cancel a class in order to attend a conference or deliver a talk. I would argue that Election Day responsibilities are at least as important.

As for me, I will be devoting Election Day to doing volunteer voter protection. I am cancelling my class that day, both to enable my volunteering, and also in the hope that some of my students will similarly use that time for Election Day activities.

If enough professors can be convinced to cancel their classes during Election Day, we may then persuade our universities to make Election Day a school holiday. This could then lead to Election Day becoming a national holiday.

Below, I am pasting the images of a couple pages from my grandfather’s passport, issued by Nazi Germany, that ultimately allowed him to emigrate to the United States. Note the “J” stamped in the upper left corner of the first page and also the word “Israel” written before his name, meant to mark him as Jewish.

I am merely a tax law professor, not a historian of the Weimar Republic. My understanding of that era comes primarily from family lore. Yet this lore tells of a time before the rise of Hitler, when my grandfather’s family felt safe and secure in Germany and thought that the Weimar Republic was a robust democracy. Certainly, they saw problems, but they considered these problems minor. Nevertheless, only a few years later, many of my grandfather’s family members were forced into concentration camps.

If this seems overdramatic as a lesson for today, my point is only that democracy can be fragile in ways that may not be apparent to those living during fragile moments of history. The potential stakes merit vigilance. Democratic institutions are worth sacrificing for. At least in my view, to call on professors to cancel their classes, or to call on employers to let their employees off early, is to ask for a relatively small sacrifice.