Should Election Day be a National Holiday?
In the 2016 presidential election, almost 56% of eligible U.S. voters cast a ballot. That means, of course, that 44% – or approximately 108 million eligible voters – did not vote (based on U.S. Census Bureau statistics). Considering the impact that elected officials have on our everyday lives, that is a significant number of non-voters. Should Election Day be a national holiday? While it has the potential to increase voter turnout, there are questions about how equitable that increase would be.
Pros of an Election Day Holiday
Increased voter turnout
How much voter turnout can we reasonably expect in the United States? Countries like Belgium and Sweden report voter turnout over 80%. In U.S. territory Puerto Rico, where Election Day is a holiday, voter turnout above 80% is common as well. Keep in mind that in 2016, voter registration in America exceeded 200 million people. And that’s not the number of eligible voters; that’s just the number of eligible voters who are actually registered. For every 1% increase in turnout from registered voters, that’s an additional 2 million votes. In the 2016 election, it’s widely accepted that the presidential election came down to 107,000 votes across three states. So, even a minimal impact on voter turnout can have a significant impact.
In these times of hyper-partisan, confrontational politics (Read on Pro and Con List: Are Partisan Politics Bad?), it is rare to see any issue with bi-partisan support. That is the case, however, on the topic of a national holiday for Election Day. According to a Pew Research poll, 71% of Democrats and 59% Republicans support the federal holiday initiative.
Recognizing Election Day as a national holiday would add an element of celebration that would pair nicely with the message of civic duty. The right to vote is a valuable, special right that is not enjoyed worldwide. Exercising that should never feel like a chore; it should feel like a festive expression of democratic ideals.
The day would be marked on calendars
This may not seem like a big deal, but calendars have a sizable impact on advance planning for many people. Whether it’s your Outlook calendar or the wall calendar in your kitchen, having Election Day noted on that Tuesday between Nov. 2 and Nov. 8 might be just the reminder that someone needs.
Cons of an Election Day Holiday
If a federal law is passed to create a national holiday for Election Day, millions of people will not realize the benefit because private employers are not required to give their employees paid federal holidays. People working in hospitality, retail or other service positions are likely to still have work that day. In fact, it might be even harder to take time off because those who get the holiday are more likely to be shopping, eating at restaurants, and generally engaging in commerce.
This is a particularly important Con because it is not just about some people not getting the holiday benefit. It is also about who those people are. Many “blue-collar” workers already face voting challenges because their work hours are often less flexible than those in “white collar” jobs. These are the people who need the most help finding time to vote, and they stand to benefit the least. Therefore, making Election Day a national holiday will not necessarily help those who are already underrepresented in the political process. In fact, it has the potential to do just the opposite.
Schools would be closed
A national holiday would mean school closures. Those same people who are disproportionately represented in service industry or part-time jobs are also more likely to face challenges with childcare. If schools are closed for the holiday, that become another obstacle between them and the voting booth.
Public transportation may be reduced
It is common for public transit systems to have lighter schedules on holidays. People who rely on public transportation to get to their polling location may have more difficulty doing so. This become yet another disadvantage for lower-income populations that already face significant voter disenfranchisement.
A holiday is not the most effective solution
Opponents of a national holiday law are not necessarily opposed to increasing voter turnout. In fact, many of them share that goal but believe there are better ways to do it. The voting laws from state to state are quite varied, and there are some best practices that could be modeled at the national level. One example is voting by mail. As of 2019, four states (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington) automatically send every registered voter a mail-in ballot that can be returned with postage or dropped off without postage during the early voting period. Voters who prefer to cast a ballot in person on election day can still do so.
Early voting is another possible option. It is already more prevalent than mail-in voting, with most states offering some version of this (specifics vary widely), so expanding access and improving promotion could have a positive effect on nation-wide turnout.
Other common proposals to improve voter turnout include automatic voter registration or same-day registration, and expanding no-excuse absentee voting.
Do you know why Election Day in the United States is always on a Tuesday? According to Beau C. Tremitiere, in his article “Election Day is broken and it’s time to fix it,” the practice dates back to the 1800s when farmers, busy with worship on the weekend, needed a travel day (Monday) from their home to the county seat to participate in the election. Since Wednesdays were market days, the trip provided a two-for-one opportunity, and the Tuesday election day was born.
Clearly, the practice is old enough to call traditions into question. The increased voter turnout likely to come from national holiday designation is valuable. However, the prospect that underrepresented groups will not only fail to benefit, but may even be further hindered by the holiday designation, tips the scales toward the Con side.
A national holiday designation for Election Day by itself could be a net negative. If, however, the holiday designation is paired with other voter initiatives like voting my mail, extended early and/or absentee voting, and less restrictive voter registration rules, the overall impact would be a boon to voter participation and the democratic ideal of free elections and a truly representative government.
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