Now that the last of the debates is out of the way we’re finally on the terminal glide path toward election day. (May I get an Amen from the congregation?) Hopefully you’re registered and know where your polling station is located but, assuming you work for a living, will you have time to vote? I think that the answer is generally “yes” for most of us, but it’s a fact that our daily routines can turn this constitutional right into something of a chore. With that in mind, we might want to take a fresh look at the question of when we vote and what accommodations are made to ensure that everyone gets a fair chance to do it.
One idea which is frequently floated is the proposal that election day should be made into a national holiday for this purpose. Beau C. Tremitiere of the Northwestern University Law Review penned an editorial back in July suggesting that everyone should have the day off to vote. (CNBC)
By treating Election Day like any other Tuesday, we’re knowingly suppressing democratic participation. In 2014, less than thirty-seven percent of voting-eligible Americans cast their ballots — when more than one hundred and forty million adults are eligible to vote but don’t, their silence is deafening.
The ideal solution is simple: Congress should make Election Day a national holiday, or move Election Day to the weekend. Yet, few of us, especially those who have worked on Capitol Hill, harbor hope of such reforms coming from Washington D.C. any time soon. With daily press conferences, television interviews, and fundraisers filling their schedules, our elected representatives can’t find the time for an honest conversation, let alone action, to defend our right to vote. We can’t afford to wait until they, someday, get around to it.
What Northwestern University did is turn November 8th into a holiday for both students and faculty. The entire day is freed up to go vote, along with scheduling group activities for discussions of the issues. That’s a very utopian solution which might be fine for a college, but for-profit businesses can’t always afford to simply shut down the entire building for one fifth of the week in the name of patriotic spirit. So what about the rest of the country which lives outside of academia?
Perhaps there’s a compromise available. Government Executive Magazine reminds us that the federal government already has policies in place which provide for limited time off for voting, but only if their work schedules wipe out too much of the time when the polls are open.
Government workers who have a three hour block available either before or after work when the polls are open are not offered an excused absence. But if that’s not the case, time off is available to make sure they have that three hour window.
If an employee is scheduled to work from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and the employee’s polling place is open from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., the employee should not be granted excused absence for voting, since the employee would still have at least 3 hours after the end of his or her workday to vote. However, if an employee is scheduled to work from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and the employee’s polling place is open from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., the employee may be granted ½ hour of excused absence from 4:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., if requested.
This, again, is an imperfect solution, but it’s certainly better than nothing. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t address one of the major complaints of the majority of Americans who work the day shift. If you work until 4:30 or 5:00 and want to go vote after that, you’re dealing with rush hour traffic combined with going to your polling place at the time when it’s likely the most crowded. Where I live the polls open at 6 in the morning, so as an early bird by nature I tend to wind up there before 6:30 and the place is pretty much empty. But that’s not a viable option for a lot of people.
Still, you can’t say that your ability to vote is wiped out if you have any three hour block available, but improvements could be made to the system. So what options are available? The government shouldn’t be telling private businesses how to run their operations in terms of time off unless it’s a national holiday, but they could offer suggestions and monitor complaints from voters. Perhaps more private businesses could implement something like the government policy mentioned above. If your standard office hours end at 5 in the afternoon and the polls in your area close at seven, management could offer one extra hour in the afternoon to make sure employees can beat the rush or at least get a jump on potentially long lines. If they don’t want to give up a single hour of productivity, flex hours could be offered, allowing workers to make up the time later in the week.
For companies that don’t comply there are a couple of avenues available without turning the country into a completely fascist state. Businesses who receive government contracts could have points deducted on bids if they don’t offer equitable election day considerations. The names of such companies could also be released to the media so citizens could voice their displeasure and put pressure on them to maximize participation. None of these ideas are terribly draconian and could smooth the process for American workers without resorting to yet another national holiday. Something to think about between now and election day, anyway.