With just about six in 10 voters turning out to vote in the U.S., some civil rights advocates are arguing that it’s about time to give Americans the day off to vote.
The U.S. lags scores of other countries in election participation, ranking 26th out of 32 nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), according to the Pew Research Center. Countries outpacing the U.S. include the U.K, Mexico and Canada. In some of these countries, voting is compulsory, and in most of them, Election Day is a holiday.
Roughly 138 million Americans voted in the 2016 presidential election, just 61.4% of the 214,109,360 million who were registered to vote, according to The U.S. Election Assistance Commission. And that election saw the second highest voter turnout in 20 years.
Many of the people who aren’t showing up to vote on Election Day are people of color and the working class, says Vanita Gupta, CEO of the Leadership Conference on Human and Civil Rights, who is working to increase voter participation and decrease voter disenfranchisement.
There is a “need to make voting more accessible, to make it more of a civic duty, to make sure that people don’t have to choose between their job and their ability to cast the ballot are issues that are more prominent today than ever before,” she told CBS News.
Declaring Election Day a holiday has been proposed various times in Congress; it’s a popular idea. In 2018, a Pew study found that 65% of Americans favored making Election Day a national holiday. But Gupta said that there’s been a “lack of political will” to give the initiative some momentum.
Senator Bernie Sanders has certainly tried — he introduced the “Democracy Day Act” in 2018, which proposed making Election Day a federal holiday. The bill has no cosponsors, but the concept was supported by every 2020 Democratic candidate for president, excluding Mike Bloomberg and now-nominee Joe Biden.
“We should be making it easier for people to vote, not harder. And I think on Election Day we should have a national holiday which says, ‘you don’t have to rush to vote.’ People literally cannot get to the polling booth because it may close at 7 o’clock and they’re working later. Let us make it as easy as we can,” Sanders told CBS News.
Vote.org CEO Andrea Hailey agrees. “Election Day really definitely does need to be a holiday,” she said, adding, “We need to be able to have everybody feel like they have a great stake in it.”
Hailey said the country needs a “cultural shift” to prioritize voting. And she thinks corporate America has been leading the way, pointing out several businesses, including Walmart and Coca-Cola, that have announced paid time off and other accommodations to make voting easier for employees on November 3.
Vote.org has called on Amazon, Disney, McDonald’s and others to offer paid time off for employees to vote and or work the polls.
But some election analysts told CBS News that making Election Day a holiday is not a way to make voting easier.
“I’m not a fan,” said Eddie Perez, an election administration and election technology expert at the Open Source Election Technology (OSET) Institute.
He says it’s more important to spread voting out over a period of days and methods. Concentrating voters into a single day risks congesting polling places, even more so than some already are.
“[Early and at-home voting] helps prevent bottlenecks for election administrators because it ‘flattens the curve’ for when ballots are cast by large numbers of voters,” Perez said.
Executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation & Research David Becker argues that increasing turnout is a nuanced problem that can’t be fixed by declaring a holiday.
“With the variety of challenges that election officials face, [making Election Day a holiday] is well down on the list of those things that need to be addressed,” Becker said.
Like Perez, Becker thinks giving voters more time and opportunity to vote is the best approach.
“We already know how to make voting convenient to voters — that’s by offering them options, like making an election season rather than election day,” he said. “And we actually have more options than ever before.”
With those options — early in-person voting and more voter awareness on how to vote by mail — voter turnout appears to be trending upward. By Monday morning, nearly 60 million had already voted early across the country, closing in on half of 2016’s total voter turnout. Election officials in various states have predicted historic levels of turnout in 2020, with a chance to reach the highest ever. Experts told CBS News that it’s no coincidence this is occurring in a year when Americans have more time and more ways to vote than ever before.
Election Day is already a holiday for state employees in more than a dozen states including Kentucky, Michigan, and New York. But none of those states have considerably high turnout compared to those where it isn’t a holiday.
And even if it were a federal holiday, that wouldn’t ensure that all voting-age Americans would have the day off. Consider the pandemic, which has not given essential workers more time off.
“Election Day as a national holiday would mean things like perhaps reduced schedules for public transportation, schools being closed, hourly workers perhaps being incentivized to work more with time and a half. And so while it’s very understandable that people are trying to find ways to make it more convenient for people to vote, it’s very likely that Election Day as a national holiday would actually hurt the voters who most need more options,” Becker said.
Modern life operates around the clock. Americans are working all the time. So, focusing voting efforts to one day doesn’t do enough to accommodate everyone, Becker argues. He thinks the increased options afforded by early and mail-in voting could be undermined by making Election Day a holiday, creating “a solution in search of a problem.”