In one important measure of democracy, America is unfortunately not first. Or even 20th.
In fact, according to a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center, the United States ranks near the bottom for voter turnout among its peers in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, just 26th out of 32 countries.
In the top 15 countries in Pew’s study, turnout of the voting-age public ranged from 87.21 percent (Belgium) to 65.97 percent (Mexico). In the U.S., only 56 percent of the voting-age public participated in the 2016 presidential election.
What can we do in the United States to improve this core aspect of our democracy?
A handful of countries, including Belgium, achieve their high turnout rates by making voting compulsory. Others hold elections on weekends, or make Election Day a national holiday.
To make America first again, a new national holiday is the canonically American way to do it.
Making Election Day a national holiday positions voting as an act of joyful civic celebration. It says that we as society value the widespread participation of citizens in democracy so highly that we put it on par with Presidents Day, Veterans Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and other national holidays. In the same way that other major holidays have become powerful economic engines, it creates new opportunities for entrepreneurism and commerce. And it encourages us to think of voting as something we do communally, with friends and family, as a shared expression of what it means to be American.
Actively looking ways to increase voting rates should be a national priority, because higher voting rates reflect an engaged electorate — more people who feel like co-owners of our society, more people who want to have a say in where we’re going as a country. This, in turn, increases the moral legitimacy of our democracy.
Indeed, our ability to choose our leaders in free and fair elections is the foundation of our democracy. In contrast, devising new ways to strip citizens of their right to vote, or systematically working to make voting hard and inconvenient, is immoral and anti-American.
Instead of trying to narrow the electorate, we should pursue policies and mechanisms that make voting more accessible and more engaging. And this shouldn’t be a partisan fight. Amid today’s deepening political polarization, opportunities to engage in a common quest for a more perfect union are too few and far between. We need more political initiatives that involve bipartisan cooperation. This could be one of them.
TIME FOR AN UPGRADE
As NPR noted in a 2012 story, we vote on Tuesdays in the United States because that was the day that was deemed most convenient for farmers in the 1840s, when getting to the polls often required lengthy journeys.
“In the 1840s, elections were a big to-do — there was a lot of hoopla, there were parades,” now-retired Senate Historian Donald Ritchie explains in that article. “Whole families would come on wagons from the farms; people would get dressed up for the occasion.”
Of course, elections were extremely undemocratic in that era, because only white men could vote. In addition, there were many other flaws that arose out of an atmosphere where saloons were converted into polling places and drinks were on the house — coercion, bribery, violence.
But the raucous, highly social approach to voting in this era did produce high turnout rates, peaking at 81.8 percent in 1876.
In a 2008 New Yorker essay, Harvard history professor Jill Lepore reveals how the story of voting in America is a story of innovation and experimentation, progress and trade-offs.
Over time, we shifted from festive gatherings where people celebrated, listened to music, and voted publicly, by voice, to private polling booths and standardized, government-printed ballots. As a result, Lepore explains, voting grew “safer, quieter, [and] more orderly.” But these changes also “dampened public enthusiasm for voting by prohibiting the staging, at the polls, of heated political debates and ending the celebration of Election Day as a boisterous public holiday.”
Is there a way to recapture the good parts of what was lost without compromising the safety and security of present-day election processes? A way to dramatically increase how many eligible voters actually do go ahead and vote?
As Lepore notes in her essay, only 6 percent of Americans were eligible to vote at the nation’s founding. Then, suffrage was limited to white male landowners and/or taxpayers of a certain age. But as voting in America grew safer and more orderly, it also grew more democratic. Progress on this front came slowly, and even as voting was expanded to included non-landowners, men of color, and finally, women, poll taxes, literacy tests, and other means of impeding and discouraging newly enfranchised citizens were deployed.
In recent years, we’ve seen a resurgence of such efforts, via methods and mechanisms that do real harm to our democracy’s moral legitimacy. Instead of focusing on how we can make voting more accessible to eligible citizens, we see widespread polling place closures. Illegally purged voters. Reductions in early voting and same-day registration. The proliferation of Voter ID requirements that disproportionately disenfranchise minority communities.
While many Republican strategists freely admit their goal is to narrow the electorate, other less candid vote control advocates endorse aggressive Big Government regulation as the necessary means of ensuring the security and integrity of our elections.
That’s why we regularly see anti-American vote purge attempts like the recent one in Ohio, where 40,000 eligible voters were on the verge of being wrongfully cut from voting rolls. Or efforts like the one in Florida to impose an unconstitutional poll tax on former felons, even after the state’s citizens voted in 2018 for an amendment that restores voting rights to felons upon completion of their sentences.
In reality, study after study shows that voter fraud is exceedingly rare. Instead, what truly undermines the integrity of our elections is how low voter turnout plays out along demographic lines, leading to election outcomes that make our democracy much less representative than it should be.
As Stanford University political science professors Adam Bonica and Michael McFaul noted in a Washington Post essay, hourly paid workers in restaurants and retail have the lowest turnout rates. In contrast, lawyers, executives, and other salaried professionals with flexible schedules have the highest turnout rates. This dichotomy helps perpetuate racial and socio-economic inequities.
To counteract this, we should pursue policies that make it easier for all of our citizens to vote, including voting by mail, early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, automatic registration and same-day registration, and more.
Improving voter access and voter turnout should be seen as a shared national commitment, a patriotic goal uniting every citizen and elected official who truly believes in our Constitution and the emphasis it repeatedly places on the right to vote. To reflect this national commitment, in a way that is both broadly symbolic and extremely pragmatic, we should make Election Day a national holiday.
Making Election Day a national holiday won’t magically increase voter turnout rates overnight. For one thing, not everyone gets federal holidays off. And making Election Day a holiday would likely lead to more business for restaurants, grocery stores, movie theaters, and other retailers. So service-industry workers might not find it any easier to make it to the polls under this new scenario — even if employers support the spirit and intentions of a national election holiday with complementary policies of their own. (More on this below.)
That’s precisely why we should continue to expand voting by mail, early voting, and other ways that make it more convenient for citizens to vote when it works best for them.
But Election Day as holiday does something unique, by creating a context for more community-oriented approaches to voting. That’s key, because as a 2012 article in Slate notes, “Just about everyone who pays attention to voting agrees that it is a habitual action.” Or, as a 2018 Washington Post article puts it, “Culture and community-level norms regarding civic engagement and voting all play a significant role.”
There are major variations in voter turnout rates by region in the United States, and a lot of these variations are dependent on community norms and identity. Puerto Rico, for example, boasts voter participation rates that have hovered around 80 percent for decades. There, community-wide celebrations are a regular occurrence around election time, with people parading through the streets in festive processions called caravans. In addition, if Election Day falls on a weekday, a holiday is declared.
But it’s even more than just a one-day event. “It’s like a big holiday, and voting is just the culmination of that, just like the 25th is the culmination of Christmas,” exclaimed Luis Raúl Cámara, a political science professor, in that 2012 Slate article. “There’s a lot of social incentive to vote.”
In 2005, political science professor Donald Green held an “Election Day Poll Party” during a local election in New Hampshire to determine what sort of impact that might have on turnout, and found that such efforts could increase participation. In 2016, Chance the Rapper gave a free concert in Chicago the night before Election Day — then led a “Parade to the Polls” that included hundreds of young voters to an early voting center.
According to the National Retail Federation, 86 percent of Americans celebrate the 4th of July. In a 2013 Yougov.com poll, 85 percent of respondents said they were planning to celebrate Thanksgiving. Every year, businesses and consumers spend billions of dollars promoting and engaging in these two holidays alone. Such investment creates a virtuous cycle of awareness, participation, and innovation, as the demand for new ways to celebrate persists over time, year after year, decade after decade.
Imagine a future where music, food, and festival-like setups outside polling places become a common feature of the voting experience. Create those conditions — where voting becomes a community-wide party rather than a bureaucratic obligation — and eventually we’ll see voter turnout rates rise to levels not seen since the 1800s.
Making Election Day a national holiday would accelerate this vision — but the private sector can help make it a reality too, by giving both full-time and part-time employees paid time off to vote, and publicizing their commitments through websites like ElectionDay.org.
Think of such policies as an investment that companies make in the communities where they’re located, and thus where they find their employees, customers, suppliers, and more. Corporate leaders should do everything they can to help their employees become more engaged and productive members of their communities, because that in turn creates better overall conditions for commerce and entrepreneurism. It also helps establish a company as the kind of responsible and civic-minded organization where talented people want to work.
“Since 1870, more than 1,100 different proposals have been introduced in Congress to establish permanent federal holidays,” a Congressional Research Service report from 1999 states. “Only 11, however, have thus far been approved.”
In addition, this report notes that each of these 11 “patriotic celebrations” emphasizes a “particular [aspect] of the American heritage that molded the United States as a people and a nation.”
Surely America’s commitment to democratic civic participation — and its achievements in expanding the franchise over time, to more justly empower all its citizens — embodies an aspect of the American heritage worthy of the greatest patriotic celebration.
Obtaining the “consent of the governed,” to use Lincoln’s phrase, is how our leaders achieve their moral legitimacy to act on our behalf. Thus, our leaders should view increasing America’s voter participation rates as an ongoing goal.
Making Election Day a holiday is a quintessentially American way to help achieve this end. It would give people more time to go to the polls. It would strengthen communities through shared civic participation. It would position voting as a celebration of democracy, not a hardship with barriers and obstacles that have been added to strategically discourage participation. It would help America even better embody the ideal that this country is a place where the government is “of the people, by the people, for the people.”