Making Election Day a Holiday Won’t Solve Our Lack of Participation

We should do it anyways.

photo credit: Shutterstock/The Atlantic

he United States has one of the lowest voter participation among established democracies. Why is that? We’re the oldest democracy? We’re a wealthy country and most people do agree in the importance of democracy here within our country.

Over the years, there have been several proposals to increase voter turnout; including the Democracy Day Act of 2018 sponsored by none other than Senator Bernard Sanders. This proposal would designate election day as a national holiday with the hopes of increasing voter turnout and strengthening our participatory democracy. The act itself contains other measures aside from making Election Day a holiday but I wanted to focus on whether or not that measure would have any impact.

Making Election Day a holiday would certainly have it’s benefits but the gains in participation could be limited. The forces behind our low turnout are more systematic than simply that people have to work. Better engagement options would be to expand the ways in which people vote, invest in providing more poll resources, and take measures to expand voter registration.

How People Vote

In 2020, it’s crazy that we think that we still need to vote in person. This is a relic of the past and a product of approaching democracy with a “this is how it’s always been” mindset. We live in a time when we can order groceries directly to our doorstep and when we can apply for a mortgage in minutes, with sensitive banking and personal info, from our phones. Yet we still buy into the notion that voting can only happen on a single day at specified locations, and on paper.

This election year in particular has been a study in watching one side set the narrative and observing members of that party pick up the talking point that anything other than in-person is not secure. These are the same folks who fill up their phones free apps that just so happen to steal their user data. The truth is, if we really wanted to prioritize making it easier to vote, we could do so securely. Doing so, would do more to drive turnout than an Election Day holiday.

Making Election Day a holiday would help by easing some of the burden that people feel to juggle voting and working their full-time jobs, but let’s look at who the holiday would benefit. First off, if you are an essential worker, or a care worker, you likely are going to be working regardless of the holiday status. You still have people in the grocery stores and gas stations during Christmas even though banks are closed. You also have care workers who are tending to aging parents or children who need their attention. The hospice worker still has to care for patients regardless of the day. Who are the essential and care workers?

For the most part they are the lower-income individuals, minorities, and women. So conversely, who would a holiday help to drive turnout for? Well, quite obviously it would be opposite groups. High-income white men. My point isn’t to say that we don’t want high-income white guys, it is to say that driving turnout should be targeted specifically at groups that vote in lower numbers.

Instead of focusing on giving everyone the day off, let’s focus on providing ways to vote for people who we know will not be able to get to the polls. This could be accomplished by expanding early mail-in voting. Utah, for example, has been running mail-in voting for years and has done so with very minimal incidents of voter fraud. It’s great. I get my ballot several weeks in advance. I can look up each candidate or ballot initiative beforehand. Then, I sign the ballot and drop it off at our Senior Center (where there is a secure, drive up box for ballots). By expanding early voting, we shift voting day from a single day where everyone is trying to get shifts covered, to a period in which people can find a time that works for them.

This has the added benefit of reducing bottlenecks at polling locations on the day of elections. This election, in particular, we have seen stories about hours-long lines to cast a ballot. This should be called out for what it is. If time is money, then a four-hour wait to cast a ballot is a form of poll tax. If every county in every state could implement a voting period, we would see a reduction in the amount of people who chose not to vote because the specifics of their situation make it inconvenient on election day.

“But wait”, you say, “haven’t we seen bottlenecks at early voting places anyway”. We have. Harris county in Texas has been a great example of this. Some voters there have documented waiting in line upwards of twelve hours. This leads to the second part of changing how people vote. Aside from just expanding the timeframe in which people can vote, we could find ways for people to vote remotely. If we can secure online banking and medical records and important business or government email, we can certainly find ways to make online voting a possibility. Advances in distributed ledger based software applications make secure technology an option and already we are seeing several countries around the world move their voting systems to an individual’s mobile phone. Imagine a world where voting day means securely logging into an application on your phone and casting your ballot from the comfort of your couch.

Mobile voting of course has its downsides. The same people most likely to benefit from a holiday would benefit from mobile solutions and the same low-income people struggling to vote today would see less benefit from a mobile option. I offer the technology solution, not as the perfect solution, but rather as an example of changing how we think about voting. If, as a country, we really want to expand voting — if that really is the goal and not just a cover — then we need to be actively looking for ways to do so.

Where People Vote

Let’s go back to the example of Harris county where people are waiting for hours on end to vote. This isn’t by accident. As I write this, there is a single voting location in a county with over 4.7 million inhabitants. There are a number of reasons for this criminal and grossly negligent scenario. In Holder v. Shelby County the Supreme court ruled that large portions of the Voting Rights act of 1965 were no longer relevant and should therefore not be enforced. This, along with several other recent court cases, has had the effect of drastically increasing incidents and opportunity for voter suppression. Entire books can and likely will be written about the effects of this new era of suppression; suffice it to say for this piece that we are actively limiting where people can vote.

Instead, if we want to drive turnout for everyone, we need to make it convenient. Investing in polling locations and working to increase where people can vote would make a substantial difference in how many people cast ballots in an election. I’ve written elsewhere about agency-based registration. In short, allow people to register to vote at the agencies where they already frequent. Similarly, we should be allowing those same government agencies to collect ballots. If you are a person who is going to the unemployment office anyway, why not be able to cast your ballot there during election times? We already trust government agencies with providing vital services and with secure information. By turning post offices, unemployment offices, schools, city offices, and benefits offices into voting places, we could avoid bottlenecks around a single location.

Without passing legislation to expand voting locations and allocating money to the additional locations, an Election Day holiday has only a very small effect in shortening lines and driving votes. Remember, a wait in line on Election Day, holiday or not, is still a poll tax and it will affect you regardless of your economic situation (until people find a way to pay their way to the front of the line anyway).

Who is Registered

Where people are registered to vote, they vote. It’s as simple as that. Where localities have taken measures to make registration easier, they have a better voter turnout and thus a more participatory democracy. The United States is unique in this regard. If our governing system could be compared to an operating system, we’re running Windows 95 and claiming it is the best because it has been around for so long. We need to take advantage of what we can learn from other democracies that have higher participation and implement those changes.

Once such a measure would be agency-based registration as mentioned above. I actually think this is a bug fix more than a new feature in our governing system. It would still require that people register. Other democracies assume that the right to vote goes along with being a member of the country and do automatic registration. This should be our goal. The United States has a long history of voter suppression based around registration requirements. Jim Crow laws of the South required poll taxes, literacy tests, and overcoming extreme violence for some people. Those laws have never been limited to the South though. There is a reason that low-income, minorities, women, the young, and people with disabilities register in lower numbers. We have systemic suppression in every county in this country. We should be investing in the resources necessary to have election officials proactively working to ensure that every member of a locality is registered to vote. Put the onus on the government instead of on the victims of voter suppression.

Returning to the idea of a national holiday on election day; doing so will have very little impact on voting rates of those who have not been able to register. For this reason, same day and polling location registration policies should also be implemented. In short, we need to invest in the infrastructure or codebase of our democratic system from registration to voting if we want to write it in such a way that we have the types of participation we see in other developed democracies.

Why Does This Matter?

If a national holiday for Election Day doesn’t help people to register, doesn’t reduce the cost to vote, doesn’t reduce long lines at voting locations, and doesn’t allow those already statistically less likely to show up to vote, should we still do it?

Here, I give an unequivocal “Yes”. Every effort that we take to show that we value a participatory democracy can only help. Of all the reasons that people don’t vote, apathy should be the least common. If we showed that voting is important and matters enough to invest in, citizens would value that and engage in the process. Coupled with an expansion from voting day to a voting week, a holiday could help to turn the actual voting day into an event. In Australia, for example, it isn’t uncommon for voting locations to have food and music. We all love holidays and I think we should have more of them so I believe we absolutely should make Election Day a national holiday.

The risk however, is to name the holiday and move on. The fear is that by making a big show of a new holiday, we pat ourselves on the back and ignore deeper and more impactful policy changes. We need to change how we think about voting and that means expanding when we vote, how we vote, and how we build the infrastructure allowing people to easily vote. We need to target policies to help traditionally low-turnout demographics, and we need to regularly reevaluate where our systems fail so that failures to expand democracy can be addressed. Democracy Day will definitely go down on my calendar but “Expand Democracy” should be on all of our to-do lists.

But what do you think? I think a healthy conversation around what we want our democracy to be is more important now than ever before. Are there better policy proposals? Is limiting voting to only those who are invested enough to register a good thing? If you liked this story and want to continue the convo, follow my work.

Reader, thinking, creator, and father interested in the intersections of technology, democracy, and humanity. Check out my work at www.redstateprogress.org

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