Democracy Day

The goal of making Election Day a national holiday is not only to make it easier for people to vote, but to increase attention on the need for us to move toward a vibrant democracy.
11/12/2014 05:28 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

This week I introduced legislation to make Election Day a national holiday -- Democracy Day.

I am doing this because, as a nation, we should be embarrassed by the abysmally low voter turnout that we experienced in last week's midterm elections.

In 1863 at Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln described our democratic form of government as one "of the people, by the people and for the people." And where are we today? Are we "of the people, by the people, and for the people" when 60 percent of those people didn't vote and 80 percent of young and low-income people failed to vote? Are we a government "of the people, by the people and for the people" when poll after poll shows that most Americans can't even name the political parties that control the U.S. Senate and U.S. House or who their members of Congress are? Are we a government "of the people, by the people and for the people" when billionaires can spend unlimited amounts of money to elect candidates to represent their interests?

Nationwide, preliminary indications are that the total turnout in the recent mid-term election was only 36.6 percent, according to the United States Elections Project at the University of Florida. If the preliminary estimates hold true, last week's turnout will be the lowest in modern American history and a full 22-point drop-off from the 2012 presidential election.

We Americans do better in years when the White House is at stake. Since World War II, turnout in presidential elections has ranged from a low of 52 percent to a high of 64 percent. But that's nothing to brag about. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance ranks the United States 120th in the world for average turnout. In Scotland, for example, there was 84.6 percent turnout in this year's referendum on whether to remain part of the United Kingdom. In Denmark, 80 percent turnout is normal. In Australia, where voting is compulsory, the turnout is even greater.

Clearly, here in the United States we can and must do better.

The goal of making Election Day a national holiday is not only to make it easier for people to vote, but to increase attention on the need for us to move toward a vibrant democracy. While an Election Day national holiday would by no means be a cure-all for increasing voter turnout, it would be an important step forward toward celebrating our democratic heritage and making a commitment to engage more people in the political process.

Creating a Democracy Day would be very important, but it is only one part of what has to be done to increase citizen participation and to create the kind of political system that we can be proud of.

To keep the billionaire class from turning our democracy into an oligarchy, we must also focus on campaign finance reform and public funding of elections. Billionaires like the Koch brothers and others should not be able to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on campaigns while candidates who are not rich or dependent upon the rich are unable to have their voices heard. That's why we need public funding of elections. That's why we need a constitutional amendment to overturn the disastrous 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United that let billionaires and corporations spend unlimited sums to tilt elections in their favor.

Further, we have got to end the aggressive efforts to suppress turnout. Instead of encouraging more people to take part in our democracy, Republican legislatures and governors have passed laws to keep people away from the polls, especially low-income and young people. They have made it harder to register to vote. They have reduced opportunities for early voting. And they have made it more difficult to actually vote on Election Day by requiring picture IDs supposedly to address all-but-non-existent voter fraud. The laws aren't intended to discourage fraud, they are intended to discourage voting. They have worked. A study I requested from the Government Accountability Office, a non-partisan congressional watchdog, found states with strict voter ID laws saw turnouts drop 2 percent to 3 percent compared to states without such laws. The laws are designed by people afraid of what would happen to them if more people were involved in the political process. What cowards!

For those of us who believe in a vibrant democracy with an engaged and well-informed electorate, we have a lot of work in front of us. Sadly, in the year 2014, we must still convince the American people about the relevance of government to their lives.

We must convince young people that if they vote in large numbers, we can lower the 20 percent real unemployment they are experiencing with a major jobs program. We must convince students that if they participate in the political process we can lower the outrageously high student indebtedness they face. We must convince low-income workers that voting can raise the national minimum wage to a living wage. We must convince seniors that not only can we prevent cuts to Social Security, we can expand the paltry benefits that so many are forced to live on. We must convince the millions of Americans who are deeply worried about climate change that political participation can transform our energy system away from fossil fuels to energy efficiency and sustainable energy -- and create millions of jobs.

Throughout American history, people have fought and died to protect and expand democratic rights. In these very difficult political and economic times, we cannot turn our backs on those heroes and heroines and their extraordinary efforts. The struggle continues.