Political News

Why isn't Election Day a national holiday yet?

Posted April 13, 2020 4:30 p.m. EDT

— On Sunday, Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam signed into law a measure that, among other things, makes Election Day a state holiday in the commonwealth.

"Voting is a fundamental right, and these new laws strengthen our democracy by making it easier to cast a ballot, not harder," Northam said in a statement. "No matter who you are or where you live in Virginia, your voice deserves to be heard. I'm proud to sign these bills into law."

Virginia joins Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky and New York in making Election Day a state holiday. So why aren't more states doing it? And might they in the face of the challenges to in-person voting posed by coronavirus?

I put those questions -- and more -- to Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a longtime observer of elections and electoral reform. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.

Cillizza: Ralph Northam declared election day a state holiday in 2020. How common is this in the country?

Ornstein: It is not common to have Election Day as a holiday, although some state primaries, like South Carolina, have been held on Saturdays to make it easier for working people to vote.

More for convenience than anything else, most states hold their general elections to sync with the federal election date of the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November. That date was set in legislation in 1845 to make sure that in an agrarian society, people could travel to vote and be back home both for Market Day and for the Sabbath. It has not been changed to conform to modern times-- for 175 years!

And let's be blunt-- in many states, the goal of making it easy for people to vote is superseded by the desire to make it hard for people to vote, because those people might vote against the party in power!

Cillizza: What's the best argument for it?

Ornstein: The vote is the cornerstone of a free society and a democracy. In nearly every democracy, there is a direct goal of getting all or most eligible citizens to vote in elections. Voting is made convenient, registration to vote is made easy and the burden of getting people registered is on the state, not on the citizens.

In some countries, like Australia, attendance at the polls is mandatory -- you don't have to vote (you can opt for "none of the above"), but if you don't show up and you don't have a written excuse for illness or travel, you are subject to a fine of roughly $15. As a result, the turnout is over 90% and elections do not revolve around consultants trying to motivate their party bases to turn out while figuring out ways to suppress the base of the other party.

One way to get more people to turn out is to take away the "rush hours" that occur when Election Day is a typical work day, and many people can only vote early in the morning before leaving for work or at the end of the day when returning home. Long lines discourage voting.

A holiday means that people can vote whenever it is convenient. And it also means that more polling places, including in schools, can be more readily available, and more and younger poll workers will be able to serve.

Cillizza: What's the best argument against it?

Ornstein: There is really only one argument against it -- adding a new holiday can be costly to the economy. Fewer people working can mean less economic activity. That is why the proposal at the federal level is to make Veterans Day into Election Day -- honoring veterans who fought, shed blood and died to protect and preserve our system, starting with the right to vote.

Cillizza: In 2019, congressional Democrats proposed making election day a holiday but it never went anywhere. Why -- and does that mean it needs to be done on the state, not federal, level?

Ornstein: Inertia is always a good explanation for congressional inaction, along with the fact that representatives who by definition have succeeded under the existing rules have little incentive to change those rules.

At the same time, our parties do not believe equally that more people voting is a good thing. President Donald Trump, in a rare moment of honesty, made that clear a few days ago, when he said that making voting easier via vote by mail would be bad because it would hurt Republicans. That is a sentiment that has been echoed by many Republicans in Congress.

Cillizza: Finish this sentence: "In states where election day is a holiday this November, we should expect ______________." Now, explain.

Ornstein: "We should expect a higher turnout."

It will not be miraculous; some people, if we no longer have the constraints of the pandemic, will travel. Others will still have to work. Some may just not want to vote, and others may be deterred by other factors.

We need more changes in the voting system to greatly enhance our turnout, including automatic voter registration, several days of early voting, more states adopting at least "no-excuses" absentee voting.

But making election day a holiday does two things: it underscores the importance of voting, and it makes it easier for working people to vote.

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