September 10, 2018

VALDETARO | Make Election Day a Federal Holiday

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For three weeks after spring semester, I worked on a congressional campaign in my district, for a candidate who not only held policy positions I agreed with, but exemplified what I thought a leader should be. In a competitive Democratic primary with five qualified candidates, including a local office-holder who was considered the favorite, we thought it possible for an outsider with a scrappy but thorough field operation to squeak out a win. I went into our office every day believing that every single interaction I had with a voter could be the determining factor. And yet, in the final few days before the election, the candidate I worked for was knocking doors when she talked to a construction worker who didn’t know if he’d be able to make it to the polls on election day because they opened after he had to go to work and closed before he got home. Those of us on her campaign lamented that he might represent a sizable chunk of people who may have been able to swing the election toward us had they been able to get to the polls.

Unfortunately, our perception of this race was not the reality that we faced. The favored Democratic State Senator, who was still a great candidate that I shortly afterward went to intern with for the rest of the summer, won by just over 10,000 votes, or nearly 20 percent. Clearly, the group of voters unable to make it to the polls did not impact the eventual outcome of this election. And yet, in recent history they had: the control of Virginia’s House of Delegates stayed in Republican hands through when a recount and subsequent challenging of a ballot determined that two candidates in one race had tied, meaning the election and control of the chamber came down to film canisters with the candidates’ names in them being chosen out of a bowl. This race and three others in that election decided by less than a percentage point exemplify the importance of every single vote. And it is with these results and the construction worker my candidate talked to in mind that I believe we should make Election Day a federal holiday.

A federal holiday does not mean that everybody would automatically be able to vote. In fact, federal holidays only guarantee paid time off for non-essential federal employees, even though schools, banks, other government institutions and many private businesses follow suit. Besides just this argument that not everybody would be included in an exemption from their usual activities, some might argue that an early voting period is sufficient to make sure that everybody who’s eligible to vote gets the opportunity, even if it’s not on election day. This argument could even be maintained for strict excuse states, where you must provide an explanation for why you are unable to get to the polls on election day in order to be allowed to vote early. If you know that your job requires you to start commuting before six in the morning and get home after seven in the evening, then it’s reasonable to say that you should know to go vote early.

Crucially, though, assumptions like these ignore the realities on the ground that so often prevent people from voting early or getting to a polling place on election day. You can only know to vote early if you you get your work schedule far enough ahead of time, which is often not the case for service sector jobs. Even when a person is eligible vote early, fewer polling places are open, which creates a hurdle especially high for those without a personal mode of transportation. Both of these also assume that people remember that there’s an election, as most campaigns’ get out the vote operations don’t contact some people until the last weekend before election day, when early voting is no longer an option, in Virginia at least.

In addition to the impact that such policies have on people’s ability to simply participate in government, there are also feedback effects on how people view their government. In a nation where we increasingly lament the lack of civic involvement among our population, it seems hypocritical to indirectly cull people from the civic process by making it harder for them to participate in it.

These arguments also apply to measures that directly determine who is in the electorate, such as voter ID laws and the sort of voter roll purges undertaken by Ohio earlier this year. Cast as measures meant to protect our elections, all of these policies undeniably affect communities of color at disproportionate levels. Whether this effect is intended or not, it is the job of policymakers and elected officials to predict it and realize the implications: it erodes the legitimacy of our elections by making who gets to vote a battle between those who currently have governmental and societal power, and those who simply want to have some say in holding that power accountable.

Perhaps even more relevant in this case than a policy’s implications, are the values that serve as its foundation. Restrictions to voting don’t further the ideals of our nations, but instead continue their uneven application which has plagued our history, and even been a platform for American progress. From the ratification of the Constitution through the Three-Fifths Compromise, to the end of Reconstruction in 1877, all the way to the productive bipartisan period of the mid-20th century that ended with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, the wheels of our democracy were for too long been greased by avoiding the debate over the civil rights of minorities. 53 years since that arrangement was theoretically ended, it’s time to not only recognize that it should never have been accepted in the first place, but that it can not exist in the future. Although it may be only the first of many steps, making election day a federal holiday would be a welcome one to signal to minorities that the function of our democracy now encourages their inclusion, as opposed to depending on their exclusion.

Giancarlo Valdetaro is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. Setting The Temperature runs every other Tuesday this semester. He can be reached at gvaldetaro@cornellsun.com