Ensuring Access to Election Day for All

By Annie McDonald

Amidst the 2018 midterm elections, familiar calls to designate Election Day as a federal holiday are ringing out once again. One of the most visible proponents of this change — Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders — has reintroduced his bill, the Democracy Day Act, which would “[designate] Federal Election Day, the next Tuesday after the first Monday in November in each even-numbered year, as a legal public holiday.” Hopes that this change would increase voter turnout are the main driver behind these calls for a public holiday: In 2016, 55.7 percent of the voting-age population (VAP) in the U.S. cast ballots in the presidential election, placing the U.S. a dismal 26th out of 32 developed nations in voter turnout. Turnout in midterm elections is often even lower: less than 37 percent of the VAP in the U.S. cast ballots in 2014, the lowest number since 1942 (when many Americans were out of the country fighting in World War II). While increasing voter turnout is a worthy goal, to be sure, would designating Election Day as a federal holiday succeed in creating more accessible elections? The answer is less simple than Bernie Sanders may make it seem.

We should begin with the question of why Election Day exists in its current form in the first place. In 1845, Congress, seeking to unify the chaos of 50 separate states all setting their own election days, passed a law mandating a single federal Election Day, to be held on the first Tuesday of November. Tuesday was selected as the winning day in order to prevent people from traveling to the polls on Sunday (a day of rest in many religious traditions). In 2018, this reasoning doesn’t hold much water, and many have called for Election Day to be moved to a weekend day, or to designate it as a national holiday. In other countries that have higher voter turnout than the United States, the argument goes, Election Day is a holiday, increasing access for all who wish to vote. And it is true that many Americans have cited being at work or school as main reasons for being unable to vote. Theoretically, a federal holiday would remove that particular barrier and would increase access to voting for all. Right?

Not so fast. While giving all individuals a day off work or school to fulfill their civic duty and vote is an admirable goal, it likely wouldn’t work that way in practice. Many low-income voters (those who already have less financial clout in the way of political donations and who tend to turn out in lower numbers than those in higher income brackets) may not be employed in jobs which would observe a national holiday. Americans working in retail, hospitality, and service jobs, for example, would most likely not receive the benefit of a paid holiday to vote. In fact, these voters may be more likely to have to work as a result of  a federal election holiday, where they may have had time off previously on a random Tuesday in November. Additionally, many of these individuals rely on school days as childcare for their children. An additional day off school would prove to be problematic for individuals who may not have other readily accessible forms of childcare.

It is also imperative to note that these lower-wage workers tend to be disproportionately women and people of color — communities that have faced and fought through many significant historical barriers to voting. A federal holiday dedicated to voting would not only fail to benefit those most sorely in need of it — it could contribute even further to the systematic disenfranchising of and discrimination towards these voters, due to increased turnout of wealthier, more privileged voters while depressing turnout among voters with fewer resources.

A more practical (and potentially more successful) solution would be to federally mandate several hours of paid leave for all workers regardless of industry on Election Day. Many states already have voter leave laws on the books, including California, New York, and Texas. However, there are still states — especially in the South — that have more limited voter leave laws or lack them entirely, creating a patchwork of voting accessibility across the country. A single, federally mandated voter leave law that applies to all workers, regardless of industry, would remove a significant barrier for individuals who are unable to take time off work to get to the polls. If the law is federally mandated, employers would be aware ahead of time of the required time off for their employees and would have ample opportunity to address any scheduling issues that might arise. Finally, such a change would help to eliminate discrepancies in turnout (and consequently representation) between lower- and higher-wage workers, as well as between states that currently have disparate laws on record regarding voter leave.

This conversation is all the more important in the face of new reports of voter roll purging in Georgia and voter suppression in North Dakota. The act of voting is the primary way most members of American society interact with their democracy and is the most basic way to participate in decision-making. There are many other concerns about the accessibility of the decision-making processes in our country, ones that absolutely deserve our attention and resources, but increasing the ease of voting for all citizens possibly has the most straightforward remedy of all of them. The battle for the universal right to vote among citizens who are not white, male, and wealthy was hard-fought and hard-won. We should be honoring and affirming those efforts by ensuring access to the polls for all citizens, regardless of income or employment status.

Annie McDonald is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy and an Editor of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal.