Voter turnout during the midterm elections was exceptionally large — at least by American standards. Even the 2018 midterms, fueled by electrifying races and a deeply controversial President, only registered a 50% voter turnout. Relative to historical standards, that number marked the highest turnout in a midterm election since 1914, when the Democratic Party retained control of both houses of Congress, the first time they had done so since the Civil War.
The United States ranks 26th out of 32 developed democracies in its percentage of voting-age people who participate in voting, nestling it between Estonia and Luxembourg. For a country that treasures and aims to propagate its democratic values, this is a civic crisis. Our most sacred privilege — the right and ability to partake in choosing our representatives — is only exercised by half of eligible adults. Our issues are too large, and our democratic process too precious, for only 1 in every 2 Americans to participate.
We can point to a myriad of reasons that collectively shape this reality: voter apathy, voter suppression, declining faith in institutions, mass-incarceration, inaccessible transportation and a dense system of ever-changing state voting laws. Addressing election reform will require pragmatic leadership at all levels of our marble-cake federalism. And, yes, it will require bipartisanship — a nearly moribund term in DC.
There is, however, one bipartisan window for reform in at least one aspect of the American voting system: Election Day itself.
The genesis of our Tuesday voting tradition emanates from a distant — yet in some respects, strangely analogous — time in our republic, when horse and buggy dominated the boulevard and Jacksonians occupied the White House. President Polk, encumbered by tariff negotiations and a brewing conflict between the US and Mexico, signed the Presidential Election Day Act into law in 1845. The act proclaimed that Election Day should take place on a Tuesday, in order to accommodate farmers’ schedules — market day was, after all, on Wednesday — allowing enough time for rural voters to begin commuting by horse on Monday so that they could reach a voting location by Tuesday.
It’s time for us to adapt the Presidential Election Day Act to the age of factory shifts, hourly wage service-jobs and ridesharing. That is, let’s make Election Day a federal holiday, allowing workers nationwide to take the day off. And for those concerned about how that might affect public and corporate calendars — consider the idea of combining Election Day and Veteran’s Day. It feels apt to vote for the future of our republic on a day when we honor those who sacrificed to secure that very privilege. What better way to appreciate the service of those who protect our democracy than by partaking in our most fundamental democratic tradition?
Several efforts to reform Election Day have been attempted — most recently by Senator Sanders — to no avail, largely because the electoral implications seem to benefit one party over another. Yet, the kaleidoscopic realigning of the political parties after the 2016 Presidential Election enables a unique opportunity for bipartisan consensus on Election Day reform. Now, both parties have an equal stake in ensuring that working-class and hourly-wage workers, who are often encumbered by restrictive shifts, make it to the polls.
Logistically, making Election Day a public holiday would also allow local election commissions to access more public spaces — like schools and government buildings — that could be used as polling locations, making the hassle of driving to your local polling place easier. It would also increase the availability of poll workers and poll watchers, positions currently reserved for those who are retired or have flexible work schedules.
During the 2014 midterms, the Pew Research Center polled a small sample of voters who did not vote in the midterm election. Two-thirds of voters indicated that they did not vote because they simply did not have time. Of that group, 35% specified that schedule conflicts with work or school precluded them from making it to the polls. Revisiting the Presidential Election Day Act of 1845 to make Election Day a federal holiday is far from a panacea for our electoral malaise, but it’s a politically-feasible step in the right direction toward a more representative and holistic turnout on election day in America — one that demonstrates our commitment to democracy that measures up on an international scale.
Adam Hammer is a first-year graduate student at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .