With every election season comes the familiar lament: voter participation rates in America are abysmal, among the lowest of the major democracies.
This problem is not merely an embarrassment. It has serious consequences. Chief among them is it allows fringe groups and well-financed special interests to tilt the outcome of elections by turning out their faithful on Election Day, while vast blocks of our electorate remain on the sidelines, their views unrepresented.
What are the causes of low voter turnout? Pundits everywhere are quick to tell us that voter apathy and disillusionment are to blame. But one cause the pundits rarely cite is the sheer, practical difficulty of getting to the polls on Election Day.
Take, for example, poll closing times. In most states, polls close at 7:00 or 8:00 p.m. In some states, polls close as early as 6:00 p.m. As a practical matter, these early closing times have the effect of denying millions of citizens a reasonable opportunity to vote. After all, who among us hasn’t at one time or another had a routine that included a long commute, overtime, or family responsibilities before or after work?
State laws that attempt to deal with this problem by requiring employers to grant employees a break from work to cast their ballot have brought only marginal benefits. This is not surprising when you consider that a “voting break” is not a viable option for employees who work far from their polling places or who simply have heavy workloads or deadlines to meet.
Nor have absentee ballot and vote-by-mail procedures had a sizable effect on voter participation rates, probably because they merely substitute one set of obstacles – finding and getting to the polls – with a new set of obstacles – requesting, completing, and mailing the ballot.
So, if we are truly serious about removing the practical obstacles to voter participation, what can we do?
I propose that Congress pass legislation designating Election Day as a national holiday; and while it has the opportunity, rename it Voting Day to emphasize that the day is for voting – something we do – as opposed to an election – something we might watch on television.
In keeping with this change in mindset, we should promote the day as the most important of national holidays – the day on which we fulfill our obligation as citizens and give meaning to the ideals of our founders by choosing our government representatives.
So, let’s say that we go ahead and make Voting Day a national holiday. What kind of benefits can we expect?
Almost certainly, voter turnout will increase dramatically because people will have an entire day to contemplate their duty as citizens to vote and an entire day to make their trip to the polls.
And most importantly, election results will more accurately reflect the will of the people, instead of the will of the fringe groups and well-financed special interests that seem to dominate our politics today.
Some may rightly point out that adding another national holiday would be costly to both businesses and government. To address this concern, I recommend removing Columbus Day from the list of national holidays to offset the cost of adding Voting Day to the list.
I’m pleased to report that on 1/5/11 Rep. John Conyers of Michigan introduced to the House of Representatives H.R.108, the Voting Opportunity and Technology Enhancement Rights Act of 2011, which, among other things, establishes Election Day as a National Holiday. The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Sub-Committee on the Constitution for further action. To those of you who would like to promote this proposal with your Congressional representatives, I suggest you make specific reference to H.R. 108. — Editor