Rethinking Election Day: A Push for Participation

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By Zach Gorwtiz.

Earlier this month, fellow DPR columnist and friend Michael Pelle wrote a column rebuking the North Carolina legislature and legislatures across the country for tightening voting restrictions. These restrictions take many forms—ID laws, early voting cuts, the removal of same-day registration, etc. While it’s difficult to call the motives for these laws tacit racism (I think these Conservative lawmakers just don’t want liberals voting), there is no doubt their effect disproportionately hurts minorities. While it’s these changes that catch our eyes, even the least restrictive voting law is inherently depressing turnout. The way we vote needs dramatic overhaul, an overhaul that would benefit minorities, majorities, pluralities, and supermajorities alike.

Voting on Election Day since the late 18th century, Americans have fallen into a sort of functional fixedness—we vote on Election Day, and that’s it. The election (both midterm and presidential) shall be decided on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. However, this concept is antiquated, impractical, and antithetical to the purpose of a democracy. It’s time the United States adopt a new voting model: Election Period, rather than Election Day. 

An informed and active citizenry is vital to a democracy.  One that voices its opinions through the power of a vote and one that exercises its rights by participating in government. But I’m not a political philosopher, and I’ll leave the elegant defense of voting to those who are. What I do know is that more Americans should be voting. It is not political apathy or protest, but a flawed, and logistic failure of an electoral system that prevents higher turnout.

Having an election on one single day in an approximately 12-hour period creates a host of problems that severely depress American’s ability to vote. The single day rush to the polls causes long lines and traffic that dissuades people with important commitments, such as a job or a family to take care of, from voting. In my home state of Florida, we’re no strangers to election controversy, and 2012 was no different. Theodore Allen, professor of industrial engineering at Ohio State University, estimates that up to 49,000 Floridians did not vote because of logistical problems at the polls. 49,000 Americans were disenfranchised because an entire nation had to run to the polls during a single 12-hour period!

You might be asking, “Well, what about early voting!” Good question—it’s a shame it’s been curtailed by Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Ohio, and number of other states are considering it. With the Supreme Court having struck down the portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that requires states with a history of discrimination to preclear voting changes with the Department of Justice, the restrictions do not have an end in sight. There is no question that the polls are already a mess on that one Tuesday in November, but add early voting cuts, same-day registration restrictions, and tightened voter ID laws to the mix and you have an system that severely increases the opportunity cost of voting. This cost functions as a modern poll tax, forcing people to choose between exercising their basic rights and going to work. In a true democracy, that opportunity cost should be zero.

If our goal is truly to allow as many Americans who want it the chance to vote, why are we restricting the election period to 12-hours? An election period that begins on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November and runs until the 3rd Tuesday in November would drastically increase turnout, essentially make an early voting period federal law, and decrease the hassle associated with casting a ballot. Not only would such a proposal shorten lines and make the polls more accessible, but it would also solve for other emergency harms. The best example is Hurricane Sandy, which hit the Northeast hard right before Election Day. Many had concerns that voters would not be able to get to the polls or the election would have to be moved, but under my model no such measures would be necessary—you simply vote on another day. It would also reduce the susceptibility of our elections to an incident like a terrorist attack. Overall, this model does nothing but make voting easier, smoother, and hassle-free.

Alternatively, there is the argument that these reforms would not change the amount of voter turnout, just when the voters turnout. Political scientists contend that the Election Day rushes encourages voters to come out, a kind of cultural influence. I don’t deny this—but my model would change the culture of voting in the long term, and for the better. Campaigns and voter habits would adjust to the new system. There is no denying the importance of early voting in getting people to the polls—according the U.S. Census Bureau, 26.6% of registered voters did not vote because of  “a lack of time.”

Increased turnout gives the underrepresented a voice. White males are overrepresented in Congress, making up 75 percent of the House, 79 percent of the Senate but only 37 percent of all Americans.  And women, who make up 50.8 percent of the population, only represent 17 percent of the Congress. Historically, minorities vote at much lower rates, and this is revealed in a government that does not reflect the demographics of our population. While other factors are certainly at work here, hopefully, with voter turnout increased, the amount of minorities voting will also increase, leading to a more diverse Congress.

In 1969, President Richard Nixon asked the Silent Majority for its support. In 2014, the Majority Who Are Silenced is asking for ours. The foundation of our democracy is being eroded. An extension of the voting period solidifies that foundation for all who wish to express their opinion through the power of a ballot. 

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