Too few Americans vote. A national election day holiday could help.

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
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Given America’s historically low voter turnout, changing an outdated Election Day calendar is worthy of serious consideration.
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In America, too few people vote. In the last presidential election, 40 percent of eligible voters didn’t participate. Whatever you think of the outcome of the 2016 election, having so many Americans sit on the sidelines is bad for democracy.

Making Election Day a holiday, a change recommended by a 2001 commission, is gaining traction. Hundreds of businesses gave their employees time off on Election Day last year.

Earlier this year, commissioners in the city of Sandusky, Ohio, voted to eliminate Columbus Day as an official holiday. They replaced it with Election Day.

“We are swapping them to prioritize Voting Day as a day off so that our employees can vote,” city manager Eric Wobser told the Sandusky Register.

This is an idea worthy of consideration elsewhere. A bill to make Election Day a federal holiday, backed only by Democrats, passed the the U.S. House in March. It faces dim prospects in the Senate; Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called the legislation a “ power grab” by Democrats. It is sad that encouraging more people to cast a ballot has become a partisan issue, prompting Republicans to stifle reforms such as changing Election Day and, worse, taking steps to make it harder for millions of Americans to vote.

Nationally, voter turnout was 50 percent in the 2018 election, an off-year election. In 2016, a presidential election year, turnout was 60 percent.

Voter participation in Maine has long been above the national average. In 2016, voter turnout in the Pine Tree State — 72.8 percent — was the second highest in the nation, behind Minnesota at 74.8 percent, according to Ballotpedia.

Maine has generally made voting easier by allowing same-day voter registration (Republicans took it away in June 2011, but voters brought it back less than five months later) and early voting by absentee ballot, either in person or by mail.

Despite these efforts, getting to a polling place on Election Day can still be difficult for many Americans, especially those who work multiple jobs or have long commutes between their homes and work.

That’s why the idea of making Election Day a national holiday, or moving it to a weekend, are popular ideas.

The voting rate in the United States is below that of most other developed countries. In 2014 national elections in Belgium, 87.2 percent of the country’s voting-age population cast a ballot, the highest in the world. That was followed by Sweden and South Korea with 83 percent and 78 percent, respectively, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center study.

Belgium is one of 24 countries that has a compulsory voter law. These laws are not strictly enforced and fines for not voting are low ($15 in U.S. dollars in Australia, for example), but they tend to increase turnout. In addition to encouraging more people to vote, compulsory voting also brings out a more diverse group of people.

Compulsory voting wouldn’t go over well in this country. So, how about weekend voting? Two years ago, U.S. senators, including Angus King, have sponsored a bill to move federal elections to weekends in hopes of increasing turnout.

Without work obligations, voting on weekends can be easier. Mark Franklin, a professor at Trinity College in Connecticut reported that weekend voting could increase participation by up to 7 percent.

Our longstanding practice of holding federal and many statewide elections on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of the month dates to the mid-1800s. Back then, when it could take a day by horse and carriage to get to the county seat to vote, the concern was making sure elections didn’t interfere with farming. Tuesday was chosen because that day didn’t interfere with the sabbath or market days, says Why Tuesday? a group working to draw attention to America’s low voter turnout and ways to improve it.

Given America’s historically low voter turnout, changing an outdated Election Day calendar is worthy of serious consideration.

 



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