Weekend voting would improve electoral system

By U.S. Senator Herb Kohl
Published April 24th 2008 in Leader-Telegram
With the 2008 presidential elections fast approaching, we should not forget the unique and important role voters have in choosing our next president. A democracy is only as strong as the participation in it.

That said, it is troubling to see a decline in voter turnout in our national elections. For the last three presidential elections, barely more than half (51.9 percent) of the voting-age population voted. And yet little has been done to correct perhaps the most serious obstacle to voting in the United States: the fact that Election Day is inconveniently scheduled in the middle of the week - a Tuesday - when voting for most people means taking off time from work, school or child care. Holding elections on a Tuesday is a historical anachronism from the horse-and-buggy era of the 19th century - a day which is completely unsuited for our modern society.

That is why earlier this year I reintroduced legislation to change our national Election Day to the weekend with the goal of encouraging greater participation and improving the process by which voters determine who should represent us in government and lead our nation. Under my bill, congressional and presidential elections would be moved from the first Tuesday in November to both days on the first weekend in November. Holding our federal elections on a weekend is both common sense and good for our democracy. It will ensure that voters have an opportunity to cast ballots on the days they have the most free time and will help end the gridlock at polling places, which threatens to undermine our elections. Also, because the polls would be open from Saturday to Sunday, they also would not interfere with religious observances.

The last two presidential elections revealed a glaring need for us to rethink how we conduct elections in our nation. The 2000 election with the weeks-long "hanging chad" dispute in Florida galvanized Congress into passing major election reform legislation. The Help America Vote Act, which was enacted into law in 2002, was an important step forward in establishing minimum standards for states in the administration of federal elections and in providing funds to replace outdated voting systems and improve election administration. However, as the 2004 election made clear with long lines at the polls in some places (which caused people to give up on voting in such swing states as Ohio), there is much that still needs to be done. This year, with recent record-shattering registered-voter turnout in primaries and caucuses, these issues are expected only to intensify come Nov. 4.

We need to build on the movement which already exists to make it easier for Americans to cast their ballots by providing alternatives to voting on just one Election Day. Twenty-eight states, including Wisconsin, now permit any registered voter to vote by absentee ballot. These states constitute nearly half of the voting age citizens of the United States. Thirty-one states permit in-person early voting at election offices or at other satellite locations. The state of Oregon now conducts statewide elections completely by mail. These innovations are critical if we are to conduct fair elections, because it has become unreasonable to expect that a nation of 300 million people can line up and cast their ballots at the same time.

But these improvements, while praiseworthy, do not get at the heart of the problem: the outdated practice of designating Tuesday as Election Day.

Just as the original selection of our national voting day was done for voter convenience, we must adapt to the changes in our society to make voting easier for the regular family. Sixty percent of all households have two working adults. Because most polls are open only 12 or 13 hours on one day in the middle of the week - typically from 7 a.m. to 7 or 8 p.m. - considering the mid-week demands of work or school, voters often have only one or two hours to vote. As we saw in the 2004 election, long lines at many polling places kept some waiting much longer than one or two hours. If voters have children and are dropping them off at day care, or if they have a long commute to work, there is just not enough time in a workday to vote.

My legislation would require polling places to be open longer over a two-day period, which would put greater demands on these facilities, volunteers and workers. To offset these burdens, the federal government should provide some aid to lessen the burden on our communities and train poll workers and volunteers.

This would be a relatively small investment given the stakes: the integrity of future elections and greater participation of as many eligible voters as possible.

I hope my colleagues in Congress recognize this common sense proposal as one of the most significant steps we can take together as a nation in ensuring the voice of the people is heard loud and clear on Election Day.

Kohl, a Democrat from Milwaukee, is the senior U.S. senator from Wisconsin.