Although voting is the centerpiece of our democratic process, it is not a right that all Americans exercise. According to a Pew Research Center study of fifty countries, the United States ranks around the middle in turnout in national elections among people of voting age. There are many proposed legislative solutions to increasing voter turnout, but among the most bold is making Election Day a federal holiday.
The history of Election Day is actually one of convivence. The first Tuesday after the first Monday in November was chosen as the date for federal elections back in the nineteenth century in order to facilitate voting. November occurred after the harvest but before the worst of the winter storms, and Tuesday meant that people did not have to vote on Sundays or Wednesdays, reserved for church and market day respectively. However, as modern life has evolved, the laws surrounding Election Day have not kept up. The vast majority of working people have to work on Tuesdays, and November does not offer any extra convenience for voters in the twenty-first century.
The idea of making Election Day a national holiday is not a new one; bills have been introduced several times in Congress, including by Senator Bernie Sanders in 2018 and by Representative Anna Eshoo in the most recent Congress. President Joe Biden supports making Election Day a day off, as do majorities in several polls. Around the world, many countries hold their elections on a weekend, and countries like Israel designate their election days as public holidays. Furthermore, in fourteen states Election Day is already a public holiday, although only five of those actually require employers to provide paid time off for voting.
Although one could argue that Election Day is fading in prominence, with the rise of early voting and mail-in ballots. In fact, eight states conduct all-mail elections in which every voter receives a mail-in ballot by default, although in-person voting is still available in these places. However, fifteen states require an excuse to vote absentee, including Alabama, Connecticut, Mississippi and New Hampshire, which also do not offer unrestricted in-person early voting. And in the recent 2022 Midterm Election 43% of voters chose to vote in person on Election Day, demonstrating the importance Election Day still holds in our democracy. It is therefore incumbent on us to make voting in person on Election Day as seamless as possible.
There are good reasons to make Election Day a federal holiday. Expanding access to voting for working people is of paramount importance, especially when people report not getting time off as a barrier to voting. If employers will not allow workers time off, then making Election Day a holiday will help these people have access to the polls. This is also a proposal with widespread support among both parties. Although making Election Day a holiday is associated most often with Democrats, it is an idea that a majority of Republicans support, although a certain faction of the Republican Party sees allowing Election Day to become a holiday as a tradeoff to restricting mail-in and early voting.
There is opposition to making Election Day a holiday. There is an argument that this is a reform that is not as helpful as others in getting people to the polls. The obvious answer to this problem is the fact that more than one reform may be pursued simultaneously, as under the proposed Freedom to Vote Act, which includes a holiday provision as well as reforms on identification requirements, mail-in voting, and early voting. A stronger argument against a national day off for Election Day is the idea that since schools would presumably close, millions of Americans would be left to scramble for child care, meaning the change would not create the intended benefit to working families. This makes sense, as government workers and white-collar workers would be much more likely to be given time off than working class people. However, this critique does not outweigh the potential benefits of an Election Day holiday, especially when combined with other measures intended to expand access to voting.
Expanding voter access and turnout are important goals in this perilous time for our democracy. Embracing Election Day as a national holiday is a bipartisan supported reform that would be a great first step in ensuring voting access far into the future.
Maura Pallitta is a second-year law student at Cornell Law School. She grew up in New Jersey, and graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she studied history and political science. She is an associate for Cornell Law School’s Journal of Law and Public Policy.
Suggested Citation: Maura Pallitta, The Case for Making Election Day a Federal Holiday, Cornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y, The Issue Spotter, (Jan. 20, 2022), http://jlpp.org/blogzine/the-case-for-making-election-day-a-federal-holiday/.