Should Election Day be a national day off so everyone has plenty of time to vote?

Is it time for the United States to promote voting by making Election Day a national day off? Here in New York, state law requires employers to give voters time off to vote. But in many parts of the world, elections are held on weekends, or are a national holiday.

Would a national day off for Election Day increase votership? Maybe not. The Center for Voting and Democracy quotes political commentator David Morris as saying that, “there may be something in the culture of voting in different countries that is separate from when the voting takes place.” In other words, as Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate told the Center, people may be “more likely to go fishing than voting if they’re given a day off.” We think it’s worth a shot, though, and it would re-affirm the importance of voting.

We already have national days off for a variety of reasons, as well as federal holidays that are days off for some of the working public (or grade school students) but not others. Some have indeed lost much if not all of their original meaning, and have effectively become national picnic days. Yes, some people go fishing rather than, for example, pay their respects at military cemeteries.

But as Slate points out, in Puerto Rico, where voters get a full day off, voter turnout is way higher than in the rest of the United States. It’s as much as 50% higher than mainland turnout rates in the quadrennial presidential elections, which typically get the highest turnout in the U.S. Voter turnout in Puerto Rico in the 2000 election was 82%! The culture in Puerto Rico is different in many ways from that in the rest of the U.S., but they do show that the idea of a day off for voting can work.

Does New York State’s voter law help? Employers must give staff as much as two hours off in order to vote if they would otherwise not have time to while polls are open, but with polls in New York open longer than in many other states — from 6am to 9pm for federal election days — nearly all voters ought to be able to find time either before or after work sometime in that fifteen-hour stretch. Of course, for some, the need to get kids ready in the morning and to and from school and activities, or a commuting schedule with little flexibility, makes it tough to vote before or after work. State laws that provide for employees to take time off sometimes aren’t clear about whether it’s paid time off. Let’s remove the confusion and the obstacles.

The United Auto Workers union negotiated a new contract in 1999 that treats federal elections as paid holidays. Chrysler has extended the deal to all of its employees, not just union workers. In a number of states, including in New York, state employees get a day off for Election Day. Justifications have varied; it’s easy to imagine that lawmakers want to ensure staffers won’t be coerced by elected officials in the halls of government. Whatever the rationale, it’s a good start. Let’s use these examples to support the idea of a day off for the rest of us.

Some areas avoid the problem by allowing early voting by mail, or voting online. Examples include the state of Oregon, and even the country of Estonia, which now offers online voting. New York allows absentee voting by mail, but offers that approach only to voters who know they’ll be away from home or ill on Election Day. That’s no hope for those who just won’t have time in a busy workday.

What are some options? Election Day could be moved to a weekend, so the vast majority of voters would already have the day off from work. But these days, most people have plenty to do every weekend, or are more likely to be away from home. Perhaps a Monday or Friday off could offer a three-day weekend.

Autumn already has two under-observed holidays. Columbus Day, which is a federal holiday but isn’t a day off for most of the country, has come under fire in many communities as more attention is drawn to how the explorer treated the populations he found when he and his crews arrived. Veterans Day, too, isn’t a day off for most, but it’s even more worthy of observance. The Independent Voter Network talks about the attraction of using one or the other as a new Election Day federal holiday. IVN author Jonathan Denn thinks it should be Veterans Day, musing, “What could be more poetic than voting on a day that honors those who fought to keep our country safe?”

Turning Election Day into a federal holiday would be fine. But would states and employers turn it into the national day off that, say, Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day have become? Or would it be more like Presidents Day, Columbus Day, and Veterans Day, honored more as an excuse for furniture showroom and car dealer promotions?

We like the idea of strengthening an Election Day national holiday by combining it with Veterans Day. Veterans would have plenty of time to take advantage of what would no doubt be a burgeoning list of free meals and discounts on Veterans Day. Or would the dual-purpose holiday further detract from the important reasons we observe Veterans Day now, and distract from our veterans and observances in their honor?

Regardless, we know how important voter turnout is. Getting more eligible people to the polls just makes our democracy more effective. So, whatever form it takes, and whatever the schedule, we support the idea of a national holiday for Election Day. Nearly all of us would have plenty of time to vote, and polling places would become even friendlier and more relaxed than they are already. Making it a day off from work and school could mean exposing kids to the importance of voting from an early age, and make it a family experience. We could enjoy a leisurely Rotary Club pancake breakfast, an Ithaca tradition now in its fifth decade, next week. Or, the vagaries of mid-November weather aside, we could find a nice spot for a family or neighborhood picnic.

No matter how much we like the idea, this is still hypothetical. This Election Day isn’t a day off for most of us. Let’s get out there and vote anyway. And then, let’s tell our lawmakers we’d like them to work on the idea for the future.

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