Well, the elections are over at long last. Regardless of our various reactions to the outcome, we can’t ignore how millions were frustrated by the excruciatingly long lines they endured last Tuesday before they had the chance to vote. Even with mail-in ballots and early voting giving people a chance to avoid the wait, many counties saw unprecedented voter turnout, which had the unfortunate side effect of making voting more inconvenient for those who voted in person. Making Election Day a paid public holiday, while not a complete solution by itself, would be a powerful means of easing the burden that voting places on average American workers, and of honoring our nation’s historical struggle to spread the right to vote to all citizens regardless of class, race or sex.
In a way, many states have already taken tiny steps toward achieving the same effect as a paid holiday. California, for example, has laws requiring employers to allow employees some time off to vote on Election Day. Unfortunately, most of these states’ laws carry some kind of limit, usually that workers can only have an hour or two to vote, often on the condition that they don’t already have enough time to do so outside of work. This can lead to situations such as the 2014 election, in which only 36 percent of eligible voters chose to do so, according to the Washington Post. Census data for 2014 shows that out of those who did not vote, 28 percent said they were “too busy.”
Considering how many voters across the country faced hours of waiting before they could vote, it’s no wonder why others wouldn’t want to put up with that tedious wait, especially if they think that their state won’t choose their preferred candidate. But when potential voters are so discouraged that they choose not to vote, it keeps our democratic process from truly representing the majority’s principles, whether liberal, conservative or something else entirely. In turn, this generates a sense of helplessness and disempowerment when elections are decided by a mere handful of votes, such as what happened in Florida and Nevada on Tuesday. This frustration creates disunity and a loss of faith in the democratic process. In order to alleviate this, we require solutions which enable as many people as possible to make their voices heard. Making Election Day a holiday is just one of many ways to achieve that.
Yet, a lack of free time and voter apathy aren’t the only things driving away potential voters. As Matthew Rozsa of The Daily Dot and Jordan Malter of CNN Money argue, it’s also the cost of leaving work in order to go vote. While some states require the time allotted for voting to be paid, other states do not. This gives lower and middle class workers in those states little motivation to lose out on wages by standing in a line for several hours, especially if those workers must rely on public transportation or carpooling to get to polls, which consumes even more time. Rozsa and Malter correctly point out that many low-income families don’t have the luxury of skipping out on wages to go vote, which curbs their ability to have their rightful say in who leads their country. Although giving paid time off for elections would put a dent in the revenue of small businesses, the necessity and benefit of enabling more people to vote outweighs the cost.
It would be naive to think that making Election Day a holiday would solve the whole problem by itself. Some will naturally choose to abstain from voting for any number of reasons, which is their right to choose. Turning Election Day into a paid public holiday would have to be supplemented with additional means of encouraging and incentivizing voting. We could do this easily by expanding the availability of early voting and absentee voting, which are far more convenient for voters who don’t have the luxury of waiting for hours to vote on Election Day.
Our democratic process isn’t self-sufficient just because all citizens over 18-years-old have been granted the right to vote if they choose. We must actively nurture a culture which encourages everyone to vote and offers as many opportunities as possible for everyone to vote. We can credit the heated, divisive and controversial nature of this year’s election for the surge in voter turnout, but we should not depend on this level of strife and disunity to motivate voters. By declaring Election Day a public holiday, our country would take a big step toward improving our democracy and giving a voice to those who feel they are going unheard.