Experts keep telling us that this will be a “turnout election,” with each campaign using the most sophisticated techniques to get people to the polls. Yet if recent history is a guide, only about half of eligible voters will make it there.
Although the problem of low voter turnout has many complicated causes, there is one very simple one: Most voters have to work on Election Day. According to the census, the reason people most-often give for not voting is that they were too busy.
Election Day Tuesday is a relic of the 19th century, when people (men) needed time to travel by horse and buggy to and from the polls without missing any of the three days of worship. Today, it makes no sense except as a deterrent to voting. As Chris Rock put it: “They don't want you to vote. If they did, we wouldn't vote on a Tuesday. In November.”
Most democracies hold elections on weekends or have made Election Day a national holiday, a festival complete with parades and carnivals. “There are other places that celebrate voting in ways that we don’t,” says John Glaser, a Tufts University political scientist whose field research shows that throwing parties near polling stations increases 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.”
While people in other countries vote to cap off a day of celebrating democracy, Americans (try to) vote in the cramped minutes before or after work, and the tense atmosphere in polling stations recalls the DMV. You've been there, right? Long lines. Impatient people. Wouldn't it be better to go to the polls with family and friends between the free concert and the fireworks display?
Easy and enjoyable vs. difficult and unpleasant: the difference makes a difference. The United States, the world’s most famous democracy, has one of the worst turnout rates in the world. Of the world's 172 democracies, the United States is 138th. Of wealthy countries, it's dead last. In the 90s, only 44.9 percent of eligible-voting Americans went to the polls for presidential and Congressional elections.
When is a democracy barely a democracy? When most people don’t vote.
Making Election Day a holiday or moving it to the weekend would boost turnout. And at any rate, a democracy should set aside one day a year—or at least one day every four years—to celebrate itself and inspire civic engagement.
That’s why my company will be closing for Election Day. The do-it-yourself holiday is part of Take Back Tuesday, an unusual get-out-the-vote effort encouraging individuals, organizations, and businesses to celebrate Election Day even though it falls—most inconveniently—on a work day.
Election Day is my company's new favorite holiday, and on November 6, we're going to vote and party. It’s no small thing for a business to give up a profit-making day, but it’s a price we’re happy to pay, in support of the democracy that has made our business possible in the first place.
Our employees won’t be required to vote, but we’re confident that the day off will put some in a civic state of mind, and maybe their voting will inspire others to do the same. People see voting as a social responsibility they’d like to fulfill; they just need a nudge.
We love this idea of creating a positive culture of voting, where people are expected to vote, have fun when they do, and disappointed in themselves when they don’t. Positive peer pressure. Consider this: Nature recently published a study showing that Facebook, via its “I voted” message, produced an extra 340,000 votes during the 2010 midterm elections. The more people vote, the more people will vote.
We the people need to get to work restoring our democracy because politicians aren’t going to do it for us. Democracy, by definition, requires the active involvement of citizens. Creating a culture of voting is a long-term project. So let's get started.