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As MSU plans fall break "pilot," concerns about effect on voter turnout

Michigan State Spartans
Emma Winowiecki
Michigan Radio
Student voter turnout at MSU increased by over 20 percent in 2018
straight-party voting
Credit Lars Plougmann
Creative Commons
The Secretary of State says 95.5% of eligible voters are registered

Less than six months into his tenure as Michigan State University President, Samuel Stanley Jr. is working with administrators and student government leaders to develop a “pilot” fall break program for MSU students.

Yet there are concerns the schedule change could undercut voter mobilization efforts on the East Lansing campus in a Presidential Election year.

Unlike some schools, MSU doesn’t currently have a fall break for undergraduate students on its academic calendar.

Included in a lengthy December 20th email addressed to the “Spartan Community”,  Stanley said the pilot fall break would cancel undergraduate classes on Monday November 2nd and Tuesday Nov. 3rd (which is Election Day), essentially creating a four-day weekend where students wouldn’t have classes from Halloween through the election.

MSU associate political science professor Sarah Reckhow is worried a long weekend without classes that includes Election Day could jeopardize MSU’s recent success at increasing on-campus student voter turnout. Upon reading Stanley’s email, Reckhow thought, “It was horrible idea.”

“We as a campus in the last two years have been mobilizing around voting on campus; encouraging students to register at their campus address,” Reckhow said. “It’s been effective.”

In the 2018 mid-terms, student voter turnout on MSU’s campus was 35.2%, a 20.9% increase from the 2014 midterm according to data from the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement (NSLVE).

While the dates haven’t been finalized, Deputy MSU spokesperson Daniel Olsen says the pilot fall break is a good opportunity “to provide students a time to recharge but also to participate in the general election back in their home district.”

MSU Political Science Professor Matt Grossmann (who is married to Reckhow) thinks the potential effects of cancelling classes on Election Day as part of a longer fall break weren’t fully thought out, and doubts whether giving students a chance to go home will encourage them to vote.   

“That seems unlikely to me and it certainly will decrease the effectiveness of any on-campus mobilization strategies,” Grossmann said. “There’s a whole bunch of people who were recently registered (to vote) on campus.”   

Reckhow says students who leave campus for fall break could be less likely to vote when they aren’t in the campus environment and aren’t exposed to voter outreach messaging and initiatives – especially first-time voters.  

Carter Oselett likes the idea of having a fall break and avoiding an uninterrupted slog of classes from Labor Day through Thanksgiving. Oselett is an MSU Junior and field organizer for the group RISE, which advocates for free college and voter registration campaigns. And while he’s focused on getting students to vote absentee and vote early in 2020, he’s concerned about the impact of holding fall break over Election Day.

“I can’t decide if the pros outweigh the cons or the cons outweigh the pros,” said Oselett. “I’m scared that people are going to be out of town and they’re not going to vote. Or if they’re back home or travelling it’s harder for us to reach them and get them to go vote.”

The undergraduate student government body Associated Students of Michigan State University (ASMSU) has been advocating for several years for the administration to add a fall break, according to Brianna Aiello, ASMSU’s Vice President for Academic Affairs. She says plans for the pilot fall break come “almost out of request” from ASMSU through multiple conversations with the University Provost and President Stanley.

Aiello said ASMSU thought a lot of the increase in voter turnout on campus at MSU in 2018 coincided with a broader increased interest in politics and voting nationwide, and that the ultimately successful 2018 campaign of Governor Gretchen Whitmer (an MSU-alumna) could have motivated more students to vote, perhaps more than on-campus registration efforts.

“We did see that increase (in student voter turnout) from the 2014 midterm to 2018, but prior to that we didn’t see a lot of increase over the years,” Aiello said. “So this is kind of just a different strategy, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, and we’ll just adjust it for next year.”

There was a slight decrease in MSU student vote totals from the Presidential Election in 2012 to 2016, according to NSLVE data.   

Olsen says including a break during the election was a student-led request. The pilot fall break project is in the beginning of an approval process that involves several procedural steps involving administrators and student representatives, during which concerns about the proposed fall break schedule could be addressed.

“That process … allows for the details of timing and dates of fall break to be ironed out,” Olsen said. “We’re optimistic we’ll be able to make an official announcement about the break sometime soon.”

Olsen said President Stanley is committed to supporting and improving student health and wellness, and the pilot fall break gives students a chance to “recharge” and participate in the election.

Sam Singh, a former state representative whose district included the City of East Lansing, said it’s good to give students Election Day off, but including it in a four-day weekend could distract students from the election. He thinks students should vote in their college districts anyway.

“You really want (students) to be registered at their University communities so they can influence the laws they're governed by, especially at the local and county level,” Singh said. 

Grossmann also points out that voting on campus gives MSU students a chance to vote in a swing district in a swing state. President Trump won Michigan by fewer than 12 thousand votes in 2016, and Michigan Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin (whose district includes most of East Lansing) won her seat by just over 13 thousand votes in 2018.

Tyler Scott is the weekend afternoon host at Michigan Public, though you can often hear him filling in at other times during the week. Tyler started in radio at age 18, as a board operator at WMLM 1520AM in Alma, Michigan, where he later became host of The Morning Show.
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