On Tuesday, Americans across the nation hit the polls for state and local elections. At Stanford, it was an academic holiday – “Democracy Day” – for music, boba, swag, community building, and lots of thoughtful discussions about the importance of civic engagement and the state of democracy, both at home and abroad.

Founded in 2021 by Sean Casey, ’22, and Jonathan Lipman, ’22, Democracy Day’s initial goal was to engage students in the political process.

“This year, we’re trying to emphasize that democracy at Stanford is not just about engaging students, but the whole community, including faculty, staff, and alumni,” said Liana Keesing, chair of Stanford Democracy Day 2023.

This year’s event was the largest yet, with thousands participating in about 40 events Monday and Tuesday across campus – up from roughly a dozen events last year. Keesing said the goal for organizers was to create events that bridged differences through dialogue.

“Given all that’s happening in the world right now, we put a lot of emphasis this year on addressing polarization and encouraging civil discourse and productive discussion,” she said.

Students bridge divides

Democracy Day events took place across campus, with many hosted in the Old Union courtyard, where attendees enjoyed a photo booth, a DJ, Stanford swag, and boba. The packed schedule included such events as the “SRC + Stanford Dems Build a Table” event, where campus republicans and democrats worked together to build a table out of newspaper, and “Dine & Dialogue” where students dined with faculty while discussing ways to build a culture of citizenship within the university.

At the “All Vote No Play with Andrew Luck” event, student-athletes discussed being productive citizens. Luck, a former star quarterback at Stanford who played in the NFL for seven years before returning to campus and the Graduate School of Education last year, discussed the importance of community in a democracy.

“You’ve got to build bridges, you’ve got to find connections, you’ve got to find commonalities and not run away to a phone that’s going to confirm something that you already know and don’t want to be challenged on,” he said.

Student-athletes filled most or all of the 90 seats. Another 60 people – a mix of athletes and other community members – stood around the plaza for the All Vote No Play event in the Old Union Courtyard.

Jesse Pruitt, the James C. Gaither Assistant Men’s Basketball Coach, asked for a show of hands among frosh, sophomores, and juniors to make sure they were aware of the origins of Stanford’s Democracy Day.

“Just so you understand, this day off from practice and competition did not always exist,” Pruitt said.

Senior Megan Olomu is a track and field student-athlete whose mother is from India and father grew up in Nigeria during a civil war.

“Seeing where my parents have come from has instilled in me how lucky I am to be in this country and to have the rights that I’ve been enshrined with,” she said. “It’s important to stand up for democracy and for justice because that’s just not how it is everywhere else in the world.”

Faculty reflect

Stanford scholars from the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL), the Hoover Institution, and the Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI) gathered at Bechtel International Center Tuesday to discuss the state of democracy, including the many threats it faces nationally and globally.

The event featured ​​Kathryn Stoner, director of the CDDRL, Larry Diamond, senior fellow of FSI, Kharis Templeman, research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Didi Kuo, associate director for research at the CDDRL, Hesham Sallam, senior research scholar at the CDDRL, James Fearon, senior fellow at FSI, and Anna Grzymala-Busse, senior fellow at FSI.

“It’s true that people don’t feel like democracy is delivering today the way it did in the past,” said Kuo, noting an increase in protests related to elections in recent years. “This theme of democratic discontent has gone up since the 2008 financial crisis.”

Diamond noted that one of the greatest threats to democracy today is authoritarianism, which he called a “virus” that is “alive and very dangerous.” He said autocrats thrive on fear and disinformation and often attempt to shut down opponents and thwart the kind of reasoned debate and critical inquiry that occurs at universities.

“If they do their jobs right, universities promote not only critical inquiry but thoughtful and mutually respectful debate – all of that is threatening to autocracy,” he said.

Sallam expressed the need for engaged citizens. “I have witnessed what happens when people feel their vote doesn’t matter and people lose trust in democratic institutions,” he said. “Even if you’re not in a swing state, there is value in participating in the process.”

Defending democracy

Kuo also moderated the Democracy Day keynote conversation Tuesday afternoon in the Old Union courtyard with Arizona election official Bill Gates, who was chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors during the 2020 presidential election. Maricopa is the “quintessential swing county,” according to Gates, and is the most populous in Arizona. Gates, a lifelong Republican, certified President Joe Biden’s electoral victory there despite immense pressure not to from his party’s leaders.

“That day that we certified the election, I was getting text messages throughout the day, from the head of the Arizona Republican Party saying, ‘Bill you don’t need to certify. Take a few days. What’s the rush? Oh, and by the way, can you please call this lawyer named Sidney Powell?’,” recalled Gates, referring to the attorney for Donald Trump.

Gates and his fellow election officials refused and instead certified Biden’s electoral win in their county. That decision led to intense public scrutiny, online harassment, and a vote in the Arizona State Senate to hold him in contempt. Gates and other election officials in Maricopa County even received threats.

During the Q&A portion of the event, a student asked Gates what he thought about the rise of individualism and America’s fractured political culture. Gates said the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the divisiveness in the United States and, with the pandemic over, urged Americans to engage those with whom they disagree.

“We’ve got to get together, we’ve got to start talking, and we’ve got to get out of our little cliques … and both sides have got to stop demonizing one another,” he said.