Reformers, Making Election Day Easier is a Hard Sell
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.