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Brooklyn Students Lose Opportunity to Vote, Could Become a Trend in Hurricane Affected Areas

Students at Pratt Institute are being forced to choose between their grades and their vote as Hurricane Sandy impeded the school’s intention to declare Election day a holiday for students.

Months ago, in an unprecedented progressive move, Pratt Institute, a college located in Brooklyn, New York, called a holiday for November 6th to encourage students to go to the polls and vote. Now, with less than a week to go before the election, the school’s administration is rescinding this promise and is making the 6th a regular school day to make up for Tuesday, October 30th, which was cancelled due to Hurricane Sandy.

The hurricane wreaked an enormous amount of havoc in New York City alone, not to mention all the other states it hit. It closed the historic NYC subway system and made it both nearly impossible and incredibly dangerous for students to attend school during the storm. Schools had no choice but to close and now the students are being punished. Though Pratt, like all New York City schools, also cancelled classes on October 29th and 31st, no immediate effort has been made to make those two days up, resulting in student frustration at the double standard. This disenfranchising of Pratt voters, many of whom will be voting for the first time, is disheartening to many of the students.

Kate Tsyrlin, a student at Pratt, said, “Because of this sudden change I am no longer able to vote. With more notice I would have been able to receive an absentee ballot.

Now, unprepared students are faced with the tough decision: skip class and see their grade potentially suffer, or skip voting. Pratt’s harsh attendance policy mandates that three absences from any class results in an automatic failure. Some students who already have two absences are now unable to choose voting over class due to a fear of failing.

Another student, Haele Wolfe, said, “Voting is my right as a citizen, and as a paying student at the institution I attend, I also have a right to go to class and get my education. National issues are everyone’s concern and the institution I attend should not play tug of war with my interests as a citizen and student.”

Many other students expressed concern at the change in scheduling as they were planning on visiting surrounding states such as New Jersey or Rhode Island to vote at home.

“I need to vote. And since I am not registered in New York I have to go home. We shouldn’t have to get an absence in class for voting,” Alejando Arias-Camison, another Pratt student, said.

In an election year with more to gain or lose for students than ever before, penalizing them days before the election because of an unavoidable natural disaster seems unjust. College students have an incredibly difficult time voting as is, between registering as first time voters, trying to obtain absentee ballots, or finding time to visit the polls.

But this problem reaches beyond the Brooklyn school, Hurricane Sandy’s damage could affect voters across many states.643,000 New Yorkers are without power and many other states are in a similar situation. The Brad Blog’s Brad Friedman voiced concern over states like North Carolina, Maryland, Virgina, New Jersey, Pensylvania, and West Virginia where electronic voting is the only option.

“Where voters are forced to rely only on electronic touch-screen systems, if power is not restored by November 6th, we could be facing one of the problems that The Brad Blog has long warned about as just another reason why it’s insane to rely on such systems for voting. Ever.”

ABC News speculated whether the storm’s damage might push election day back, but it seems unlikely. New Jersey currently has 2.4 million people without power but doesn’t have emergency election statue and neither does Virginia which currently has more than 182,000 power outages. New York can push the election day one extra day only if less than 25% of eligible voters are allowed to vote.

There’s no telling what other obstacles “Frankenstorm” will present to hopeful voters, but it remains to be seen why Pratt Institute feels in necessary to add to those. Voting will be tricky enough with electrical outages and unreliable transportation, taking away this promised holiday will negatively impact many student voters. A petition was organized to alert the administration to this problem and it received 350 concerned student signatures in the first two hours. It’s now at 660 and climbing every minute.

Though Pratt’s Provost, Peter Barna, mentioned that the school would try to schedule a holiday on election day for the next election in four years, he did little to assuage fears of how to vote in this election, the one with the most at stake for students our age between woman’s rights, educational funding, and the threat of not finding a job upon graduation. The issue of whether schools should cancel class on election day has been debated for awhile in many states. Hawaii calls a national holiday on the day, while other schools advocate teacher leniency, meaning that the teachers should simply look past class absences for that day. This operates on a case by case basis however, and not all teachers comply. During the 2008 election, University of Virginia students put together a petition, much like the one Pratt students did, advocating for the cancellation of classes on election day. Though their protest group grew to 325 members, they were unsuccessful in their mission.

In a 2008 essay on the politics of election day classes, Jessica Nowlin, president of the Law School Democrats at Minnesota, said she wouldn’t be overly critical of the institution’s policy. But she would prefer to see voting included in the university-wide list of reasons for legitimate absences.

“I think that it’s important for a public university to encourage its students to vote,” she said, adding a practical consideration: that a significant increase in registration could translate into long lines on Election Day. “I don’t want people to be discouraged from going to the polls just because they think it’s going to take three or four hours — and it might. And it certainly shouldn’t be because they have to get to property class or something.”

It will probably be something that’s debated all the way up to the next election. But for now, Pratt student, Noor Al-Fayez, summed up many students’ feelings on the matter by saying to Pratt,

“This is a time of a political and economic storm, it can do as much damage as Hurricane Sandy if a portion of the youth are denied a day they have the right to, and are denied the right to express their vote. What is your institution advocating? I hope it is expression.”

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