Election Day: Would More Vote If They Had The Day Off?

federal voting holiday

Even with both Republican and Democratic parties bragging about their ground game, Americans will likely hit Nov. 7 knowing at least one number: just 50 to 60 percent of the voting age population will have cast ballots.

There are many reasons for this. For people in non-swing states, their presidential choice doesn't matter. Others don't know enough about the election to vote. Others know enough but don't like the choices. Others just don't care. And some people can't get to the polls for logistical reasons (which could become more of an issue in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy) or various conflicts.

From time to time, people propose that Election Day should be a national holiday in order to boost turnout. (Some state government workers, such as those in New York, already get the day off.) While at first glance this seems like a good idea, I tend to think there are other reforms worth looking at that would make it more convenient for anyone who wants to vote to vote (perhaps even after natural disasters) without the drawbacks of creating a holiday.

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Certainly, there's something nice sounding about a "democracy day" -- honoring the basic act of participation. Also, since some people get Veteran's Day off of work, one could envision switching the celebration of that holiday to coincide with Election Day (thus not creating the additional burden on businesses, parents with kids in school, etc. of another holiday).

But there are a few other problems with the idea as well.

1. Not everyone would get the day off. Hospitals still operate on holidays, as do emergency services, toll road operators, airport staff, etc. So do many businesses, since people who have the day off of work will still want to put gas in their cars, go grocery shopping, etc. Would the political makeup of those-who-get-the-day-off vs. those-who-don't tip the balance of elections? Hard to know (because I could see arguments pointing in the direction of both major parties), though in a 50-50 country, it's possible.

2. It doesn't take all day to vote. It's usually taken me less than half an hour, though in some swing states at peak times it can take 90 minutes or more.

That said, making Election Day a national holiday wouldn't shorten lines. The way to do that -- while still making it more convenient to vote -- is to do what a number of states are already doing. Allow early voting. If it doesn't work for you to vote on the first Tuesday of November, you can come in to a few polling places at any point that's convenient for you during the two weeks (or month) prior.

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Another idea -- particularly helpful after disasters -- would be to come up with a system for instantaneous absentee-ballot requests. There might be potential for fraud, but it seems like enough smart people thinking about this could figure out a way to minimize that possibility. This would make it possible for someone who got called on a business trip to Europe on Sunday of election week, or someone who found out that she had a 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. shift on Tuesday, or someone whose normal polling place is underwater, to quickly log on to some sort of online or telephone system and cast a ballot.

And the simplest solution? Have the polls stay open longer. While it's nice for newscasters that some states close the polls at 7 p.m., there's really no good reason for this during presidential elections, when 100 million people will do their civic duty. Polls can stay open from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., or even the entirety of the first Tuesday of November. People can find out who won the next day.

Do you think Election Day should be a holiday?

[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article implied that government workers in all states get Election Day day off. That's true in only some states.]

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