President Obama made headlines last week by publicly supporting making Election Day a national holiday, which would mean (almost) everybody would have the day off from work. (He announced his support in an interview with a college journalist for the Rutgers Daily Targum, no less.) Obama had previously endorsed several other measures to make voting easier — such as the automatic voter registration, increased use of early voting, and more rigorous enforcement and blocking of state-enacted voter ID laws — but this represented one of his boldest leaps in that policy area.
There is a proposal in Congress to codify this change — a bill introduced by presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
What the bill does
S. 1969, the Democracy Day Act, would designate every federal election day as a national holiday. That means every presidential election or midterm congressional election — or, to be more technical, the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November in every even-numbered year.
The United States lags behind most other developed countries in voter turnout rates as a percentage of the voter-eligible population. While voters are allowed to cast absentee ballots or early ballots, with the ease of that process varying by state, an estimated two-thirds of non-voters in 2014 cited as reasons “schedule conflicts with work or school” or “too busy.” (Although some counter that we actually have a decent turnout rate as a percentage of_registered_ voters.)
Though some states have provisions to remedy this, including requiring employers to provide up to two paid hours off work to vote, 19 states have no specific law requiring time off to vote. And even some of the 31 states that do include such a provision can make it difficult for workers to comply.
What supporters say
As Sanders said, “We should not be satisfied with a ‘democracy’ in which more than 60 percent of our people don’t vote and some 80 percent of young people and low-income Americans fail to vote. We can and must do better than that. While we must also focus on campaign finance reform and public funding of elections, establishing an Election Day holiday would be an important step forward.”
Obama, in response to the question about creating a holiday, said “Absolutely.” He elaborated, “We are the only advanced democracy that makes it deliberately difficult for people to vote… Everything we can do to make sure that we’re increasing participation is something that we should promote and encourage. Our democracy is not going to function well when only half or a third of eligible voters are participating.”
In 2005, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) introduced a bill that would have established a national Election Day holiday, called the Count Every Vote Act. The bill never received a vote. It does not appear that Clinton has yet weighed in during her current presidential campaign on the issue, though her campaign’s official website cites her 2005 bill in their section on voting rights.
What opponents say
Republicans have in recent years generally opposed attempts to make voting easier. In fact, just the opposite, with efforts to pass restrictive voter identification measures, curtail early voting and Sunday voting, and oppose same day registration, among other measures.
Conservative columnist Ian Tuttle opined in the National Review that “Low turnout as such is not necessarily a bad thing… Low turnout might well indicate a small group of very interested people, and that might be a better indication of the country’s desires than truckloads of people completing a ballot because they felt obligated… In a functioning democracy, every day is Democracy Day.”
Odds of passage
Sanders’s bill currently has zero co-sponsors. Clinton’s aforementioned 2005 bill had only six cosponsors, all Democrats, and that was a more comprehensive piece of legislation for which the national holiday provision was but one component. But with the incumbent president and possible next president supportive of the idea, and if Democrats take back control of Congress next year, this idea could gain traction.