By Paul Syers
It is absurd that Election Day is not a federal holiday. Not doing so greatly impedes the ability of millions of Americans to vote. Other measures to address this problem, like early voting, only serve to erode the authority of the election.
I don’t think I’m taking a controversial stance when I say that I think we should have a federal holiday for elections. There is something the public cherishes about voting in person. The logistical setup required for enabling the entire voting public in the US to cast their ballots on a single day is massive and it boggles my mind that we manage to do it every two years. The volunteers who make it happen have my immense respect.
Yet the fact that people have to either take off work or fit voting around their work schedules creates huge unnecessary problems. We see it every time: the news reports of long lines, people waiting for hours, waiting into the night. With Election Day not a holiday, the difficulty of voting is hardest on the lowest income voters in this country, who often work multiple jobs a day, have children to care for, or both.
Most states have enacted early voting policies, in large part to alleviate many of these problems. Early voting has a major problem itself, and that is that it undermines the basic function of an election. As I’m sure some know-it-all has told you at a high school or college party at some point in your life, we don’t actually live in a democracy, we life in a representative democracy. That’s right, we pick leaders to represent us, and the vote is the way we pick our leaders. The vote is meant to represent the will of the people, but it can only represent the will of the people at a specific moment in time. Early voting screws with that. It begins sampling the will of the people at multiple times. Some states begin early voting a full month before Election Day. A month, or a couple weeks might not have seemed to matter much in the past, but with the increased speed with which our society consumes news and spreads information, it matters a lot more.
The new mobile communications technologies of recent years hold the possibility of revolutionizing how we vote. Our children may never need to go to polling locations, instead wirelessly casting their vote, or data gathering and analysis of the public’s social behavior could even assess the will of the public on an ongoing basis. However, as the hacking scandals of recent years have shown the dire need for advancements in the security of our mobile technology, voting at polling places, in person is still the most secure method, in my mind. This traditional method needs to be done with integrity, and making Election Day a national holiday helps accomplish that in many different ways.
If people knew they didn’t have to work, then more would volunteer to man polling stations. Schools could be closed for a half or a full day. Fourteen states currently do that, but we could make it a national policy. A half-day of school lets parents vote in the morning and teachers in the afternoon. The morning could be spent learning about the process and importance of elections, and elected officials can even visit schools and tell students the story of how and why they got into public service. It would be a great way to teach the importance of participation in public governance.
Public opinion about both candidates this campaign has swung significantly, often over the course of a few days. It’s been estimated that 15 percent of eligible voters have remained undecided all the way up to the end, a far larger percentage than in recent elections. How many of them voted early, only to change their mind over the past week and a half? The will of the people is fluid. The best way we can be sure of it is to measure it at a single moment in time and work with those results. In order to do that, we should make it easier, not harder to take that measurement. Making the federal election day a holiday would not only provide a simple way to enable a swift and efficient conduction of the election, but it would also communicate to the public that we genuinely value the power of the ballot.