This past week, Congressional Democrats proposed legislation to establish election day as a federal holiday. While it shouldn’t be any surprise that ultra-partisan Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) jumped on the offensive, the reasoning for his opposition has sparked a media firestorm. In this chaos, the broad and heated debate over voter suppression has been reignited and is dominating political discourse. After McConnell attacked the effort to increase voter turnout as a “power grab,” Democrats questioned how an effort to clear substantial obstacles to voting, allowing more Americans to exercise their fundamental right to participate in government, is anything other than a rudimentary protection of democracy.
Establishing Election Day as a federal holiday would not actually increase the number of Americans eligible to vote. Neither would it loosen current standards for voter registration, something that Republicans have consistently fought against under the guise of preventing voter fraud- a practice that has been proven to have a minimal occurrence, as it is. Instead, the holiday would encourage employers to eliminate Election Day work hours, as per federal and state regulations that often require employers to pay time-and-a-half for federal holidays.
The Democrats’ aim of the proposed legislation is to make the polls more accessible to working Americans, particularly hourly workers who typically work for longer periods of time for the lowest pay rates–a liberal-leaning demographic. To McConnell’s credit: yes, establishing Election Day as a federal holiday would likely boost electoral results for Democrats, bolstering the party’s elected power. But that makes McConnell’s outspoken opposition to the bill a plainly presented plea to deny eligible voters of their civic rights for partisan political purposes. Former Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) put it most clearly when she Tweeted “What is Mitch afraid of? Answer: the people.”
It’s a valid question. For many years, it has been primarily the Republican Party which has proposed–and, in many states, passed– the most aggressive voter ID legislation. These bills have created obstacles for minority and low-income voters to make it to the polls.
Several states–most notably Ohio–have enacted “use it or lose it” laws that purge voters from the rolls if they have not voted within a certain period of time. In Ohio, that period is only two years. That means that in Ohio, any voter who voted in the 2012 election and waited until 2016 to cast another ballot would be stricken from the registry. Scores of voters, unaware of the stringent regulation, show up the polls each year and are turned away when they discover that they are no longer registered.
In North Dakota, strict voter I.D. laws require use of a residential address for voter registration. The problem? Native American reservation residents use P.O. box addresses, which don’t qualify for the residential address requirement. The law effectively disenfranchised the state’s Native American community, which makes up a substantial 9.6 percent of North Dakota’s population. The same year those ID laws took effect, Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp lost her re-election bid to GOP then-Rep. Kevin Cramer.
Under GOP Gov. Kris Kobach, Kansas passed legislation requiring voters to not only show a photo I.D. at their polling places, but also provide proof of citizenship at the time of registration. Not only was that law overturned, but Kobach was ordered to take a law course on evidence and rules of procedure.
In the most publicized instance of voter suppression, Georgia’s Secretary of State and gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp failed to process 53,000 voter registration applications in 2018, primarily from African Americans. Kemp’s office made plans to close polling places across Georgia, part of a statewide movement of precinct consolidation that has decreased the number of polling places in a third of the state’s counties. Kemp also came under fire for his aggressive purge of voter rolls and his possible targeting of African American voters, who make up over 30 percent of Georgia’s population.
Ironically, Kemp’s former opponent, Stacey Abrams, who would have been the first female, African American governor, will be delivering the Democratic response to President Trump’s State of the Union speech next week. Abrams is likely to hone in on the issue, especially given the opportunity to capitalize on McConnell’s controversial remarks so soon after he made them.
The bottom line of the Democrats’ proposal is that establishing Election Day as a holiday wouldn’t relax existing regulation on voter registration; it would simply increase accessibility for registered voters. In a country often held up as a bastion of democracy–the first of its kind at its founding–the aim of seeking the highest voter turnout possible should be an essential goal. If the encouragement of democratic engagement were to benefit one party over another, so be it.
In the 2016 election, only 55 percent of the voting-age population cast a ballot. At first glance, that might not sound too bad. Put into a global perspective, however, it starts to look incredibly deflated. The reality is that dozens of other countries with similarly high levels of development have significantly higher voter turnout rates than the United States. At the top of the pack is Belgium, with 87 percent of the voting-age population casting a vote (that’s over 30 points higher than the US). The most developed countries like Sweden, Denmark, and Germany–and many of the rapidly developing up-and-comers like Mexico–can all boast higher turnouts than the U.S.
The first reason for this problem is that the United States votes not on the standard global election day of Sunday, but on a Tuesday. Two centuries ago, the decision to have elections held on Tuesdays was made out of conscientious respect of the weekly day of rest, Sunday, a welcome consideration from a government founded on the basis of personal freedom. But today, the most marked impact of Tuesday elections is its dramatic exclusion of Americans working the longest hours, not to mention parents managing carpool duty and those struggling to finish the errands and loose ends that make the work week a balancing act.
While there could be a practically unending list of the reasons why Americans don’t show up to the polls with similar regularity to those voters in countries who enjoy the right to do so, we can’t ignore the fact that a full 35 percent of registered voters who didn’t cast a ballot did so because of direct work or school conflicts. Politics aside, a national holiday would relieve that 35 percent’s burden.
The United States can brag about being a trailblazer of democracy–land of the free–until the cows come home. But when an unacceptably low voter turnout disproportionately impacts the specific groups of Americans who are already the most isolated from the political process, it lands us with leadership that most Americans don’t feel connected to. That this problem is so pervasive should be heard as a clear warning. And that warning should be met not with self-motivated partisan attempts to protect existing institutionalized power, but by a resounding call to open up the political process to all Americans.
Alex Wilson ’22 is a prospective political science and economics major and the VPR’s Communications Officer. He has interned for multiple Congressional campaigns and worked for Cincinnati non-profit ArtWorks.