Apparently, you’re pretty busy. I’m a little surprised that you have time to read the paper, frankly. And you’re not alone. Only 36 percent of our countrymen bothered to vote in the midterm elections. A lot of people were busy that day.
Unless we are prepared to admit that control of congress will be determined largely by non-voters, we need to take a fresh look at reinvigorating the basic currency of democracy-voting. And that’s exactly why Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders wants to make Election Day a national holiday.
Turnout in the midterm elections hasn’t been this low since 1942, and back then my grandmother was busy changing my now 72-year-old dad’s diaper. Grandpa Stanford was busy, too, fighting fascism in Europe. So if turnout was a little low in the middle of World War II, I’m willing to give the Greatest Generation a pass.
But a lot has happened since then. We lowered the voting age, passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, and, with the Motor Voter Law, made it easier to register to vote. The United States has systematically welcomed more and more Americans into the fold, and now what? Voting? Eh, who has time.
Turnout was down in 2014 compared to the usual poor job Americans do. In some places-such as Alaska, Colorado, Maine, and Wisconsin-competitive statewide elections led to increased turnout. But if we’re prepared to say that Maine’s high-water mark of 59.3 percent is a success, then we need to take a hard look at ourselves. If the whole country voted like Maine, the United States would rank 143rd in the world, right behind Russia. Nope.
And if our best isn’t good enough, then our worst is downright awful. Georgia had competitive elections for both governor and senate, and turnout fell 6 points from 2010 to 34.1 percent. That’s almost half the voter turnout rate in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia!
Many on the left are rightly pointing to the number of Americans who couldn’t vote because of new voting restrictions. The Brennan Center for Justice found that the number of people kept away from the polls by these new laws exceeded the winning margins in close elections. For example, the Brennan Center estimates that 100,000 North Carolinians were unable to vote because same-day registration was outlawed. On Election Day, Sen. Kay Hagan lost by 48,000 votes.
But voting restrictions disenfranchise people who want to vote but can’t because of unfair laws. In North Carolina example, the people unable to vote because same-day registration wasn’t available only amounted to 3.5 percent of the vote, or would have had they voted. We need to get rid of those voting restrictions, but that won’t solve our largest problem when two-thirds of Americans are skipping elections.
That’s where Sanders’ idea comes in. The biggest reason people don’t vote offer is that life gets in the way. When asked by Gallup why they didn’t vote, 45 percent of nonvoters cited schedule conflicts with work or school. Another 34 percent said they were too busy, sick, out of town, or forgot. Only 20 percent cited general disgust with politics or apathy. You could have Jesus debating healthcare with Satan, and people would still have to show up to work or get fired.
That’s why Sanders thinks we should make Election Day a holiday. He’s got a bill ready and plans to file it when the lame duck Congress reconvenes.
“While this would not be a cure-all, it would indicate a national commitment to create a more vibrant democracy,” said Sanders.
Sanders proposes calling this new holiday National Election Day. And while I like his idea, I would amend it to make sure Sanders is never in charge of naming things again. His idea isn’t just about getting more people to vote. It’s about getting people to remember that they are in charge. We should call it Democracy Day.
The chances of Congress passing this law are lower than zero. But, c’mon they’ve got a lot on their plate. You get it, don’t you? We’re all so busy these days.
Jason Stanford is a regular contributor to the Austin American-Statesman, a Democratic consultant and a Truman National Security Project partner. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @JasStanford