Because so few of us vote in midterm elections (about 36.6 percent of eligible voters turned out nationally last week) Bernie Sanders wants to “create a more vibrant democracy” by making Election Day a national holiday.
Although such a move has been tried before (notably by Hillary Clinton and John Kerry when they were in the Senate, but it went nowhere) and although it wouldn’t be a “cure-all,” the Vermont senator figures it would help. Vermont’s 43.7 percent turnout this year, which was that state’s worst ever, did edge out Connecticut’s 42.7 percent; even so, both states did a bit better than the national average. Still, it took a knock-down, drag-out gubernatorial race, fought mainly with nasty and divisive television ads, to get even that many of us out to the polls in Connecticut.
Our national performance is “an international embarrassment,” says Sanders, compared to countries such as Denmark, which regularly sees an 80 percent voter turnout. “We can and must do better.”
But how? “Election Day should be a national holiday so that everyone has the time and opportunity to vote,” Sanders said, and he plans to introduce legislation to that effect right away. Which may be all well and good, but it raises some questions:
• In what sense don’t we already have “the time and opportunity to vote”? The polls are open from 6 in the morning until eight at night, and then there are absentee ballots. Some states even offer early voting or voting by mail.
• How much would it cost to pay most public employees — not just federal, but also state and municipal — as well as plenty more workers in the private sector, for another holiday?
• And then there would have to be overtime pay for those who must work on that day, including police officers, firefighters and the custodians who would come in to open the schools for voting. How much will that cost?
• Looking at the results this time around, isn’t it possible that the Vermont senator — who ran as an Independent but describes himself as a “democratic socialist” — is proposing this idea mainly because he was appalled that Republican candidates did so well? Since older and more conservative voters turned out in greater numbers this time, could it be that Sanders sees that as a bad omen for the presidential run he is said to be contemplating for 2016?
• Besides, what do we as a society stand to lose if people who are less motivated to vote — who feel less urgently about the issues, who perhaps don’t follow politics at all — simply stay home on Election Day?
The total cost of a new holiday would doubtless be huge — even the White House worries about the economic impact — but an affirmative answer to the statewide ballot question, which was so resoundingly defeated on Nov. 4, might have offered an alternative in Connecticut. It would have modified the state Constitution to allow the General Assembly to open voting up to some method or methods other than appearing — in person, at a certain place, on a certain day, between certain hours.
Such new voting methods might even involve computers. But since we already use computers to send mail, to do our banking and to shop — and since, once we get to the polling place on that certain day, between those certain hours, we use computers to vote — why not let us do it from home?
After all, this is 2014.
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