Should Election Day Be A National Holiday?

Sandusky, Ohio recently swapped out Columbus Day for Election Day, a largely symbolic move that primarily applies to municipal workers. This was primarily meant to raise awareness, and to encourage other local governments to make similar moves. There have been larger conversations about making Election Day into a national holiday including a statement by the Bernie Sanders campaign. It does seem likes it’s too much effort for something that is primarily about partisan advantage, as it wouldn’t have a chance of changing the outcome of most elections.

The first question is whether it’s worthwhile to have one less day of productivity so that people can do something that usually takes about an hour, and that a good chunk of them do anyway. Sandusky avoided that by swapping one holiday (Columbus Day) for another, although that has its own complications because it limits the ability of people to go on three day weekends. This wouldn’t be solved by moving Election Day to Friday or Monday, since that defeats the purpose of a day of voting if people have more opportunity to be away from their polling site.

It does appear that majorities of voting age citizens do vote, or at least do profess to have voted. The Census Bureau’s report shows that in the last two generations reported voting rates have been between 58.4% to 67.7%. The Bipartisan Policy Center determines that majorities of eligible citizens vote, and that the percentages have been relatively consistent since the Great Depression. One can believe that more people should vote, and that it was a problem that so few voted in the past, but this doesn’t seem to be getting worse.

The more important argument against a national election day is that the majority of elections are not actually determined in November. In most congressional districts, and maybe even most Senate races, the truly competitive race is the primary. Hell, even presidential races tend to come down to the country’s mood. The 2008 election was decided in the Democratic primary and if a general election is actually competitive, it’s often because primary voters chose a weak candidate (Would Democrats have even had a shot in 2016 against Rubio or Kasich? Would Doug Jones have been able to win in Alabama against a Republican who wasn’t Roy Moore?)

If the goal is to make it easier to vote only when it’s Republicans VS Democrats rather than when it actually matters for what specific individual will represent people in Congress and even the White House when it’s clear which party will win, it suggests that it’s all about perceived partisan advantage rather than increasing meaningful participation, creating a national holiday to swing a few close elections, rather than to offer most voters an opportunity to determine who represents them in elected office.

Geographic sorting does mean than the majority of congressional and legislative seats aren’t competitive on the day of the general election (unless primary voters choose a real stinker.) But it usually won’t make a difference if it’s only in the general election. If you’re voting in Harlem or rural Wyoming the competitive election for any position that people are voting for is likely the primary.

If you live in Washington (picking a random state for an example), the Senator is probably going to be a Democrat. The presidential votes are probably going to a Democrat (and if it’s not, it’s part of a Republican landslide.) If you’re in the eighth congressional district, the congressional race may be competitive, but the other nine aren’t (six Democratic seats; three Republican.) Your vote can make significantly more of an impact in local primaries, where you’re going to be directly affected by the issues under consideration, and probably more familiar with the topics.

There is obviously low turnout in primaries, but if the argument is that making Election Day a holiday would increase turnout in the general election (where majorities of eligible voters show up in presidential elections) surely it’s even more relevant for the primaries where you never have majority participation. It’s possible to triple participation in a way that doesn’t apply to federal elections (It’s mathematically impossible to triple 60%.)

Primary participation is meaningful since it can have more of an impact. The 19,743,821 votes for Ross Perot in the 1992 general election did not matter as much for getting an outsider elected President as 14,015,993 votes for Donald Trump in the 2016 Republican primary.

One counterargument is that making primary elections into Holidays is too difficult since different jurisdictions have elections on different days. Currently, city leaders in Sandusky can make this change to the contracts of 250 municipal employees, which is a different question from whether they should do it. There is a separate question of whether that right should be taken away, even if you disagree with how they use it. However, there are alternatives to mandating that every locality in the country follow the same primary schedule. Primary elections can also be made into statewide holidays, so that would preserve the state’s prerogative in determining different structures (IE- one state can have runoff elections) in a way that national primary elections wouldn’t. Localities might also be allowed a certain number of primary days per year, so they would still be able to choose the particular days.

I do have an issue with parties gaming the system, but that can include taking advantage of purported reforms, as occurs with many fixes to problems. For example, when it comes to gerrymandering, I get bothered when it appears there isn’t a clear standard for what constitutes gerrymandering and how it should be fixed. There’s the potential to replace a terrible system (legislative bodies choosing their voters) with a worse system (unelected unaccountable boards making these decisions.) If someone wants an independent commission, presumably they should have some clear statutes, but there isn’t much of a discussion of what those should be. One person might want to keep communities of interest together, while another might want to increase the number of swing seats, and another might want to have the composition in the legislature reflect the outcome of the vote (IE- that if 58% of voters go for one party, that party gets 6 out of 10 congressional seats). There needs to be some kind of point of reference to evaluate the effectiveness of whoever is in charge of redistricting.

As for making election day a holiday, my honest guess is that it won’t have much of an impact on the outcomes. There are ways in which efforts to define voting as a right, regardless of the cost to the government, may end up helping Republicans. Rural voters are currently at a disadvantage because of the relative expense of providing easy access to polling sites, although this can complicate the typical arguments as they do tend to vote Republican (There are obviously some areas that don’t; a rural African-Amerifcan community will tend to be Democratic) so legislation that reverses these kinds of trends in election day resource allocation may end up hurting the Democrats.

There is an argument for making the election in November and only that one into a national holiday that isn’t articulated much. The nomination process is a sorting mechanism that allows voters to focus on 2 finalists in November (3 in rare situations) rather than all the people who might run in a primary, but that seems to be more of a bug than a feature. Making the general election more important cements problems with the system, including the way we pay more attention to national races than the local races where we can have greater impact.

I certainly don’t advocate making it easier to vote in primaries than general elections. It does seem that the policies that apply in one situation should apply in the other (with the exception that party registration restrictions are fine in primaries, although it does seem it should be as easy to change party registration as it is to register to vote).

About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at
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