As Congress continues to grapple with voting rights legislation this week, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has used his considerable influence as the Senate’s key swing vote to set the terms of the debate. Last week his office released a list of voting rights provisions he would support. At the top of his list: making Election Day a national holiday. Without this simple step toward turning out as many Americans as possible to vote, any reform will be incomplete.
William G. Gale
The Arjay and Frances Fearing Miller Chair in Federal Economic Policy
Senior Fellow - Economic Studies
Director - Retirement Security Project
Co-Director - Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center
Darrell M. West
Senior Fellow - Center for Technology Innovation
Douglas Dillon Chair in Governmental Studies
So far this year, hundreds of bills have been introduced that could have the effect of suppressing people’s right to vote. States such as Georgia and Iowa already have passed restrictive measures and many others appear poised to do the same thing. These efforts challenge fundamental values of American democracy and constitute a serious threat to the “one person, one vote” principle.
To combat these efforts, lawmakers nationally have introduced HR1 (the “John Lewis Act”) and S1, which would enact a number of important provisions: improve ballot access, create nonpartisan redistricting commissions to reduce gerrymandering, provide automatic voter registration when people turn 18, allow at least 15 days of early voting, mandate that presidential candidates disclosure their federal tax returns, and require greater disclosure of so-called “dark money” campaign contributions. The bill would also effectively revive Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which requires states with a history of voter discrimination have all changes to their election laws approved by the federal government, updating the law in response to the Supreme Court’s 2013 holding in Shelby County v. Holder.
While these provisions represent major steps in the right direction, they are not enough. American election laws have been reformed before with minimal impact on voter turnout which remains low compared to other democracies around the world. There is a simple and straightforward solution: make Election Day a national holiday so that people have the time and freedom to vote without taking time off from work.
Many other democracies make election day a holiday and they all have higher voter turnout than we do. For example, Australia typically has a turnout in the 90 percent or more range, and other nations such as Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Mexico achieve very high turnout via universal voting and time off for voting.
Making Election Day a holiday would not necessarily involve adding a new holiday, which employers might resist—particularly following the addition of Juneteenth as a national holiday last week. Instead, lawmakers could simply move nearby Veterans’ Day to Election Day, emphasizing that voting is both a service to the country and a celebration of the rights and freedoms for which our servicemembers fight.
Veteran’s Day typically is about one week after Election Day so this would involve little disruption in terms of job schedules and monthly routines. Furthermore, making this small shift would celebrate the purpose and sacrifice of our fighting forces. After all, what do our veterans fight for, if not for democracy itself? And there is no better way to secure democracy than to ensure that everyone has not only the right to vote, but also the meaningful opportunity to cast their ballots.
Establishing Election Day as a holiday, taken together with the pending federal voting rights reforms, would go a long way towards stabilizing democracy and ensuring basic democratic rights. Congress would shore up the people’s right to vote while guaranteeing the time to engage in this fundamental right. These changes would send the message that voting is not a privilege to be bought with job security and time to spare, but rather an essential responsibility every person ought to undertake.
These changes would send a strong rebuke to those who are attempting to scale back voting rights and make it more difficult for African-Americans and Latinos to vote. It would also blunt the impact of many of these baldly anti-democratic moves—opening the doors to the house as Republicans attempt to shut the windows.
While no state has proposed reinstating the literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses that effectively ended the burst of African-American franchise during Reconstruction, today’s efforts to disenfranchise minority voters are similarly unsubtle. In a number of states, polling places have been closed in minority neighborhoods, which has created long lines and tremendous inconvenience for affected voters—inconvenience with a cost, especially for those paid hourly wages.
As of mid-May Republicans in 48 states have introduced 389 bills that would reduce the hours polls are open; forbid people from eating or drinking while waiting in line to vote; close voter registration on Sundays, when Black churches traditionally have organized their members to register and vote; repeal “no excuse” absentee voting; and create a long list of other barriers to voting. All this despite the fact that these types of restrictions have typically been considered illegal under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires that elections be “equally open” to all people. Litigation pending before the Supreme Court this term in Brnovich v. DNC, however, threatens to undermine this rule.
While the Republican efforts are shrouded in their supposed desire to protect the integrity of elections, there is no evidence of significant voter fraud in recent elections, including presidential election in 2020. Over 60 court cases reviewed the evidence and judges—appointed by both Republican and Democratic presidents alike—reached the same conclusion: there was no compelling evidence of fraud.
Other countries take heroic efforts to ensure that people can vote if they desire. In India, for example, a polling place is required within two kilometers (about a mile) of every single person in the country of 1.4 billion. And some countries, like Australia, require people to vote by subjecting those who don’t to a minor fine equivalent to a traffic ticket. Incidentally, Australia routinely reaches more than 90 percent voter turnout, compared to the United States, where average voter turnout in presidential elections since 1965 has been only 54%. High turnout means that people are successfully exercising their rights-a good in itself—but it also ensures the continuing health of majority rule. When turnout is high, it becomes increasingly fruitless for politicians to play to their base in ways that allow a vocal minority to rule, which is how many American leaders currently operate.
America is walking the knife’s edge between maintaining and losing democracy. Democratic rights are much easier to end than they are to restore, so the federal government must respond to the wave of voter suppression overtaking the states with decisive, expansive action. Passing voting rights reform will be a crucial component of this response, as would making Election Day a national holiday.