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The New Standard (NY)

For Reformers, Making Election Day Easier is a Hard Sell

By Michelle Chen

November 1, 2004 

The apparent rationale behind recent electoral reforms -- from increased accessibility for the disabled to the introduction of electronic voting machines -- is that voting should be a right, not a challenge. As turnout for presidential elections has dropped since the 1960s to a bare majority of the eligible population, reformers hope to make the voting process less taxing, even appealing, for a sluggish citizenry.

In 2000, over 20 percent of eligible non-voters -- and even higher proportions of Asians and Latinos -- did not vote due to scheduling conflicts or inconvenient voting procedures, according to the US Census. In response, some voting rights advocates say one obvious way to make voting easier would be to set aside a whole day to accommodate the task.

The United States is one of the few Western democracies that do not schedule elections on weekends or a designated holiday. Advocates for a voting holiday point to higher turnout in countries that give a day off to vote or hold elections on the weekend. They also look to Puerto Rico, where a full day off is dedicated to the election and turnout in 2000 was the highest in the US at just over 82 percent.

But skeptics say it is unclear whether those higher turnout rates are a result of easier poll access or of a different culture surrounding electoral participation.

Making the polls

Certainly, people with hectic work schedules would appreciate the convenience of a day off.

Pete Gonzales, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who is voting for the first time this year, said he is determined to vote despite the daunting commute from his home in Uptown Manhattan to his trucking job, based in New Jersey. But his coworkers might not have a chance to vote: "some of them, they have to stay on call… they have to work till late at night" -- past the 9:00 pm closing time for the polls in New York, which actually has one of the longest polling schedules of any state.

There is no uniform nationwide polling schedule, nor are workers federally guaranteed time off to vote, though most states require that employers grant voting time, and some prevent them from docking pay.

For Glenda Smith, a station agent in the New York City subway, voting makes her hour-plus daily commute even more burdensome. "I’m hoping I can get to the polls on my way to work," she said, riding home on the subway after midnight. But others in her situation might miss their chance, Smith suspects, "because they can’t get the time off or … their jobs [are] away from their district." Smith said she thought people would vote if only they could get to their polling sites in time. Some subway workers get up before the polls open, and then, Smith notes, "you get into another borough -- you can’t vote."

But the subway never shuts down, even on federal holidays. So when asked if he would take one of his allotted days off to vote on November 2, another station attendant, who refused to give his name, responded, "If it falls on the day I’m working, I’m working." Besides, he quipped, "Who is there to vote for?" A holiday would influence neither his ability nor his desire to vote.

One manager of a shipping company, who also declined to identify himself, echoed this skepticism from an employer’s perspective: "People who are going to vote are going to vote anyway, whether they’re working or not." Sacrificing a day of business would be pointless. As for convenience, he said, "polls are open till nine, banks are only open till three, and everybody seems to make the bank. … If you can make the bank, you can make the polls."

Gone voting?

Politicians and political observers are also finding the voting holiday to be a surprisingly tough sell. The concept was crystallized in 2001 by the National Commission on Federal Election Reform, an advisory body led by Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. The Commission recommended merging Election Day with a Veterans Day to "increase availability of poll workers and … make voting easier for some workers." Since 2001, several bills have proposed to establish a national holiday on federal Election Day, most recently the Voter Turnout and Expansion Act and the Democracy Day Act of 2003, but all the proposals have stagnated in Congress.

Rob Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, supports the reform primarily as a remedy to the severe poll-worker shortages reported across the country, since the holiday could provide "a whole new pool of potential poll workers."

He also envisions making the federal election an occasion for people to "all come together for the common good." In the long term, said Richie, the nation taking a day off to vote would be a "festive, politically exciting event" that would generate "a whole different sensibility" about voting. While other recent reforms promote voting early or by mail, he said, "there’s a real value in trying to make Election Day the day that we all vote," and in making that occasion more accessible.

But Tova Wang, a fellow at the Century Foundation, which oversaw the Ford-Carter Commission, believes sentimentality over Election Day is inevitably yielding to pragmatism. "The whole meaning of what Election Day is," she said, is "changing dramatically." One major reason the holiday reform has been a non-starter is that the significance of the day itself is fading; increasing numbers of voters are casting ballots days or weeks early.

This year, the majority of states are allowing unrestricted early or absentee voting. But voting rights experts are ambivalent on the effectiveness of early voting. It reportedly has little impact on turnout, and because influential information could surface in the last few weeks of the race, early voters might be less informed. From a nostalgic perspective, Wang thinks early voting erodes the opportunity for people to vote "together as an American community and as individual communities." However, she added, "I think it’s probably a train that’s left the station at this point."

Though some argue an election holiday might help and, at any rate, wouldn’t hurt voter turnout, opponents predict more harm than good. They point out it is unclear whether people will take advantage of their day off by participating in the election -- or just take advantage of it, period.

Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, a nonprofit think tank focusing on issues surrounding citizen engagement in politics, believes that viewing the holiday itself as a solution to low turnout ignores the systemic factors behind lackluster voter participation. He explained, "Given the fact that the problem of … voter participation in America is a problem of motivation … people are much more likely to go fishing than voting if they’re given a day off."

In Gans’s view, "Tying [voting] to the work cycle" is more beneficial than tying it to a day of rest. An Election Day holiday would "remove certain instruments of mobilization, like shop stewards, employers, teachers, et cetera." The workday, argues Gans, far from being a hindrance, could actually make people more civically engaged; if people show up to work on Election Day, they might get extra encouragement to vote from colleagues or co-workers.

A matter of culture, not convenience

It is difficult to gauge whether holiday or weekend voting actually contributes to higher turnout rates. David Morris, a political commentator with the American Voice 2004 project, wrote in an analysis of voter participation that based on his research, there is no explicit causal link between higher turnout in other countries and Election Day being a holiday. Rather, "there may be something in the culture of voting in different countries that is separate from when the voting takes place."

It is that so-called "culture of voting" -- not the extra hours off -- that may be lacking among the American electorate. Holiday or no holiday, according to Gans and other election experts, elections will continue to lose significance for people unless their political spirit is supported year-round -- through public education, vibrant civic dialogue, and access to political information.

Ultimately, "the problem … is not procedural, it’s motivational," said Gans. Long-term, culturally embedded measures will get more people to the polls than any rule change, technological gadgetry, or act of Congress. Gans noted that although the United States has "been making it easier and easier to register and vote for four decades," fewer and fewer ballots are being cast.

The underlying issue may be how Americans calculate the costs and benefits of civic participation. In acknowledging that November 2 will be only a narrow slice of the ongoing evolution of the democratic process, both sides of the Election Day reform debate indicate that if people would elect going fishing over voting, they probably need more than convenience. The hard part of voting may not be the act itself, but the challenge of seeing why it matters.

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