By Katie Frost
Today is an exciting day for democracy. With ten states and 466 delegates up for grabs, it may be the deciding factor in the Republican primary. There are sure to be stirring victory speeches, cheering crowds, and more than a few sweater vests. It's democracy at its best. There will only be one thing missing from today's pageantry -- voters.
If history serves as a guide, fewer than than 25% of eligible voters will make it to the polls today. This pathetic turnout is indicative of the trend over the past several decades throughout the U.S. Turnout nationwide in the 2010 general election was only 38%, and even in presidential election years just over half of eligible Americans cast a ballot. In fact, our democracy is one of the least representative in the world, ranking 139th of 172 countries in voter turnout.
Political scientists have debated the question of low American voter turnout for years, blaming the winner-take-all voting system, the Electoral College, media coverage, or negative campaigning. But another reason exists: primaries and elections in the U.S. are usually held mid-week, on Tuesdays, without providing a holiday from work.
Ironically, elections were originally held on Tuesdays to make voting convenient. In the 1840s, when Election Day was established, most rural farmers lived a full day's ride from their polling station. Holding elections on Mondays or Thursdays would have interfered with weekend worship. Wednesday was market day, so that was out. Tuesday was the last man standing.
This is clearly no longer the case. Tuesday elections are unrealistic and burdensome in today's hyperactive workweek. Americans are busy. Some Tuesdays I don't have time to make my bed -- let alone locate my polling station, drive there, stand in line, vote and drive home. Finding the extra time to vote mid-week is difficult for everyone and practically prohibitive for many working class citizens clocking long hours at work while looking after a family.
Early voting, absentee ballots and time off work are steps in the right direction. However, these policies are far from universal. Sixteen states bar early voting, twenty have no law requiring time off to vote and nearly half absentee ballots require an excuse. The paperwork is too burdensome for some and others cannot afford to take even a few hours without pay. In short, these patchwork solutions do not solve the underlying issue.
Imagine a day when your only duty or obligation was to vote. A celebration of democracy complete with apple pie, golden retrievers in American flag bandanas and a red-wagon parade leading to your local polling station. This cookie-cutter vision of citizen empowerment would be even more exciting than Rick's sweater vest.
More importantly, it would work.
Holding elections on weekends or holidays would increase participation. A Congressional Research Study found that non-compulsory voting countries that vote on non-work days average almost 24% higher turnout than the US. And census data reveals that Americans cite work or school schedule conflicts as the number one reason for missing the polls.
Making voting easier has worked in the past. It's why Democratic and Republican party insiders volunteer to drive fellow citizens to the polls and why states like Minnesota and Wisconsin, which allow registration on Election Day, boast consistently higher turnout than the rest of the country (78% and 72% in the 2010 general, respectively). Even steps like hosting a primary, which is a relatively simple procedure for the voter, rather than a caucus, a timely process in which voters must listen to debates from fellow citizens before casting their ballots, dramatically increases turnout. So far in the 2012 primaries, average turnout for primary states stands at 17.2% whereas average turnout in caucus states is a lowly 2.9%.
Over fifteen bills have been introduced supporting electoral reform to move Election Day to a non-work day. All by Democrats -- and exactly none have made it to a floor vote. Republican lawmakers hide behind claims that an extra work holiday would damage the economy, ignoring sensible ideas such as replacing Columbus Day or combining the election holiday with Veteran's Day. With that concern aside, Republicans must either believe moving elections to non-work days will fail to increase turnout or, more likely, they are afraid of hearing from a larger section of the American people.
Perhaps the two heaviest hitters in the GOP base are the elderly and the business community, neither of which has trouble getting out the vote mid-week. Democrats, on the other hand, appeal more to younger voters and labor, who are often unable to shake work or school commitments on a Tuesday. Empowering these disenfranchised communities through an Election Day holiday may cast a blue tint across the country. It's true that working class families tend to lean Democratic, but is that really a reason to legislatively discourage their participation?
Of course, giving the country a day off to vote will not resolve all causes of low voter turnout in the US. Some will take the day to go fishing or catch up on chores. Others will remain too disenfranchised to care. But a whole sector of Americans who want to participate will finally have the chance to do so, and the country will be better for it.
Katie Frost is a Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School. HKS Democrats leadership reviews and approves all op-eds that appear in this space.
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