Students at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law won’t be in the classroom on Tuesday learning about the law. Instead, hundreds will be out supporting the public’s role in shaping it.
In June, the school announced it would be canceling classes on Election Day to hold a “Day of Civic Service,” in which the school’s faculty, staff and students are encouraged to volunteer at the polls or in other capacities. The semester started one day early in August to make up for the planned cancellation.
The decision to cancel classes came after a group of Northwestern law students earlier this year lobbied the school’s administration to cancel classes in an effort to promote volunteerism. Since then, more than 210 people from the Northwestern community have committed to volunteering.
One of the students who advocated for the cancellation of classes, Beau C. Tremitiere, said groups including the school’s chapters of the Federalist Society and American Constitution Society decided the election process was important enough to encourage the school to cancel classes to allow more students the opportunity to volunteer. The students circulated a petition last spring that more than one-third of students signed and Dean Daniel B. Rodriguez was quick to get on board, Tremitiere said.
“There was uniform consensus across the ideological spectrum that the law school needed to be more engaged. We thought the best way to accomplish this would be to work with the administration and figure out how to create the greatest number of opportunities for students to both vote … and be empowered to spend time giving back,” Tremitiere said.
“People were really excited about it. It’s such a common sense idea, and it’s a little silly that law schools spend Election Day talking about democracy when it’s happening in reality just down the street.”
Some of the roles students and Northwestern employees will be fulfilling on Tuesday include election judges, poll watching with various groups and working with Voting Access Chicago to ensure poll locations are Americans with Disabilities Act compliant.
Volunteers will also be working to advise students participating in the Mikva Challenge, in which high school students across the city will be volunteering at the polls and some Northwestern volunteers will be doing partisan campaigning for candidates of their choosing.
In addition to canceling classes and encouraging volunteerism, the school’s Day of Civic Service committee was tasked with hosting educational programming leading up to Election Day. Those events included recent panel discussions on minority civic engagement and voting rights.
One of the education event organizers, student Cristina Messerschmidt, said she’s learned about some of the election rules ahead of her plan to be a poll watcher and she’s been surprised at the amount of opportunities there are to discourage or prevent people from voting.
If she can prevent even one person from being turned away at the polls for unjust reasons, she said, she’ll consider her volunteerism time well worth it.
She added that as “future officers of the court who are going to take an oath to follow the laws of this country,” she thinks students have an obligation to be involved in the election process.
“We as law students, especially as law students at Northwestern, I think we’re in a very privileged position to help with this,” she said. “No matter your political affiliation, we as law students should always stand for the right to have free and undisturbed elections.”
Professor Maureen M. Stratton, who is the school’s public service program director, said she was thrilled when students came up with the idea to designate Nov. 8 as a day of service.
She’ll be out on Tuesday working as a poll watcher.
“We have a long history of public service at Northwestern and part of the program is to make sure that the culture, the ethos, is there. This is so unique too because you not only have a lot of students volunteering, but to be able to get faculty, staff and students doing great work is great too,” she said.
“To have over 200 people involved in this way exceeded anybody’s expectations in terms of what the involvement would be,” she added.
Tremitiere said the Day of Civic Service committee is hoping other law schools will follow Northwestern’s lead during future elections. He’s been in contact with schools across the country to discuss the idea.
“Very few people actually oppose the idea because it makes good sense and is in line with the ethos of the legal community and legal academia,” he said. “I’m very confident that moving forward this will become much more commonplace in schools throughout Illinois and throughout the country.”