Looking Ahead: National Voter Registration Day

This year, elections will be held across the United States on November 8. It’s a good idea for American college instructors (and some secondary teachers) to help eligible students learn how to participate.

One way to do that: Observe the tenth annual National Voter Registration Day in class on September 20. This nonpartisan event, endorsed by a wide array of civic and professional organizations, provides a convenient excuse to explain the concept of voter registration, point students toward appropriate resources, and encourage them to plan ahead.

To make sure I won’t miss the day, I’m already setting up course announcements already in my various LMSes. They’re scheduled to go live automatically on the morning of September 20. I’m using variations on this template, adding appropriate links to specific webpages:

This year, [State] is holding elections on November 8. Although 2022 is not a presidential election year, the stakes are still high for [State] residents. All of [State]’s members of Congress are being chosen. So are many state and other local officials, depending on where you live. If you’re a U.S. citizen who will be eligible to vote that day, you want to make sure your voice will be heard! That means making sure you’re registered to vote.

Today, September 20, is National Voter Registration Day—a day to check on your registration status, register to vote if you haven’t already done it, and encourage other people to register to vote as well.

Even if you have registered before, it’s a good idea to make sure your registration is still current. (If you have moved or changed your name, or if you simply haven’t voted in a while, your registration may need to be updated.) And if you will be eligible to vote for the first time—for example, if you have recently turned 18 or attained U.S. citizenship—you definitely want to register now to avoid missing your chance to participate this year!

[State] has a convenient website for all your election needs: [URL]. If you live in [State], you can use this website to check on your voter registration status, learn about voting as a college student, apply for a mail-in ballot instead of voting in person, and—of course—register to vote if you aren’t already registered or if you need to update your registration. The website can also answer your questions about whether you’re eligible to vote.

(If you’re not a [State] resident, you can use the National Voter Registration Day website to find out how to register in your own state for any elections that may be happening there this year.)

The deadline to register to vote in [State] if you want to participate in this year’s election is [date]. But don’t wait! Act today to make sure you won’t be left out. 

Of course, I’ll pair this announcement with appropriate instruction in class on September 20, as well as with ongoing reminders as various deadlines approach.

Election Day Morning

I voted nearly a month ago, dropping my postal ballot into a drop box outside city hall. Since then, I’ve been trying to help demystify the voting process for students in my various courses. That’s a difficult task in ordinary times, given the arcane complexity of the U.S. electoral system and the relatively high number of American adults who are disenfranchised by law or practice, but it has been especially challenging during a pandemic that has upended a lot of voting processes. Making matters more complicated still, students are taking my classes remotely from several different states.

This year, more than most I recall, I have seen evidence that some teachers (like a lot of other Americans) are struggling to keep their anxiety under control. Indeed, many instructors on social media have been urging each other to postpone deadlines, knowing that students and teachers alike will find it impossible to focus on work in the next few days.

At one university I work for, an undergraduate’s parent even recently wrote a public Facebook post denouncing an unnamed humanities professor for (allegedly) breaking down in tears on Zoom and cancelling two weeks of class due to their fear about which presidential candidate would win. I have my doubts about the accuracy of that parent’s rant, but it illustrates several challenges of teaching controversial subjects in late 2020. For my part, I’m keenly aware of the potential delicacy of teaching modern U.S. history this year to around seventy intelligent, engaged adult students who are voting in a variety of ways.

For what it’s worth, here’s how I ended a message to some of my students on Sunday night. I have given the same message, more or less, to other students in live remote classes. It is a message to myself as much as to them.

Finally, as you know, this Tuesday is the last day of voting in the 2020 elections in the United States. You are probably tired of politics. You may be anxious about the results. You may feel disillusioned or distrustful. All these feelings are natural and normal!

If you are feeling bad right now, I encourage you to remember this: More than 100 million people* are taking part in democracy together this year. The process is flawed, bitter, and harmful, and many people who should have a voice have been denied one. But that can be said of every human activity that matters. If democracy is good, then on some level it is good for us to participate in an election like this, however unsatisfying it may be at the time, and however imperfect our democracy is.

And we can hope that one day, through our patient efforts and hard work and even our bitter arguments, our democracy will be better than it is now.

(* That would be well over 100 million people, actually. About that many Americans are already known to have voted early.)

The fact is, although I don’t think many of my friends surpass me in capacity for pessimism, I have always found the morning of Election Day immensely exciting and hopeful.

Even today, when I have not traveled to the polls in person, I feel it. No other collective public act in our time has the same comprehensiveness, representing a comparable investment by millions upon millions of people—wise, foolish, deluded, cynical, corrupt, naïve, selfless, rigidly partisan, rapidly evolving, certain, and confused alike—in the American commonwealth.

I am old enough to have been disappointed by the results of elections as often as I have been pleased. I am, on some level, full of foreboding right now. But my Election Day morning hopefulness is not really about specific outcomes at all. It is about participating in work that happens on the scale of decades, generations, and centuries.

Oh, and one other thing. This year marks the centenary of the Nineteenth Amendment. It would be a great shame for cynicism or fear to prevent us from celebrating that anniversary.


Image: Three suffragists casting votes in New York City, ca. 1917. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. Public domain. (Original caption: “Calm about it. At Fifty-sixth and Lexington Avenue, the women voters showed no ignorance or trepidation, but cast their ballots in a businesslike way that bespoke study of suffrage.”)

What Was the Electoral College For?

I have a short essay out now in Contingent Magazine. A couple of teachers have remarked that they have already found it useful for talking with high school students. (It’s probably short enough and glib enough to elicit a number of different kinds of responses.)

In the article, I consider the original purpose of that most mysterious of jury-rigged institutions, the electoral college—and I point out that, despite the stated intentions of some of its framers, the Constitution still does not guarantee Americans the right to vote for president at all.

“Fundamentally,” I argue, “the electoral college failed to work as designed because its design was contradictory in the first place.”

The whole article is available for free. Educators may also want to look around in the magazine’s curated collections of articles for classrooms. If you find them valuable, please consider supporting Contingent in its work.