Imagine if Election Day were a national holiday. Not just a national holiday but a national celebration. Freed for the day from work and school, people use the time to both party and do their civic duty. They attend festivals, fairs, food markets, and parades. They form their own parades, caravans of cars that head for the polls, expressing support for a candidate or simply celebrating democracy.
Far-fetched? Pie-in-the-sky? In fact, the above describes Election Day in Puerto Rico. The day of festivity is part of a culture of voting that has produced high turnout. Citizens in Puerto Rico see voting as a duty, but not a solemn one.
"It's like a big holiday," says Luis Raul Camara, a Puerto Rican-born political scientist. "Voting is just the culmination of that, just like the 25th is the culmination of Christmas. There's a lot of social incentive to vote."
The numbers tell the story:
Throughout the late 20th century, turnout for Puerto Rico's quadrennial elections was 50 percent higher than it was for presidential contests in the United States...Between 1972 and 2000...Puerto Rico averaged 79 percent turnout in its quadrennial elections; only eleven U.S. states clear 60 percent during that time, while 14 were below 50 percent.
Puerto Rico is small, you say. But it's not as if the United States has trouble pulling off nationwide civic celebrations: consider the Fourth of July.
Puerto Rico is not alone. Election Day in many Latin American countries is festive, and one of the reasons that Western European countries—France, Germany, Italy—have high turnout rates is that they hold elections on Sunday. “There are other places that celebrate voting in ways that we don’t,” says James M. Glaser, a Tufts political scientist who has conducted experiments showing that organizing fairs near polling stations can boost turnout. “There are Latin-American countries where Election Day is much more celebratory. And there is reason to celebrate if you’re living in a healthy democracy."
The question, though, is whether we're living in a "healthy democracy." Our pathetic voter turnout rates suggest otherwise. By making election day a national celebration, we could bring more people to the polls and help restore our democracy.