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Why isn't Election Day a national holiday in the US?

President Joe Biden said last year if he had his way, "every Election Day would be a day off." Could that happen anytime soon?

WASHINGTON — Millions of Americans will head to the polls Tuesday for the 2022 midterm elections — and some political analysts are predicting heavy turnout. 

But even soaring voter participation would likely trail that of other developed countries. Comparing 2020 turnout among voting-age Americans with recent national elections in 49 other countries, the Pew Research Center found the U.S. ranks 31st. 

So how can America catch up? Among numerous other proposals, some voting rights advocates argue that it's time to make Election Day a national holiday.

RELATED: Study ranks which states are hardest to vote in

The idea has bipartisan support — a 2018 Pew Research Center survey found it was supported by 71% of Democrat respondents and 59% of Republicans. It's been proposed in Congress various times, and President Joe Biden said last year that if he had his way, "every Election Day would be a day off." In fact, Google search data indicates that Americans often wonder if it already is. 

"There are more and more people talking about this," said Darrell West, the vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. He has written in support of the idea, suggesting one option is to move the nearby Veterans Day holiday to Election Day.

"We are in a situation where both Republicans and Democrats want to turn out their people," West said. "This is actually a bipartisan proposal that would make it possible for that to happen."

But in Washington, the popular idea hasn't made it to the president's desk.

A large Democratic voting rights bill that would have made Election Day a national holiday collapsed in the Senate this year when two senators refused to join their own party in changing Senate rules to overcome a Republican filibuster. The Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act included numerous other election reform efforts, like registering all voters automatically and ensuring access to mail-in ballots.

It's not the only Election Day holiday proposal Congress has heard — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced his "Democracy Day Act" in 2018, a concept with broad support among 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) introduced her "Election Day Holiday Act of 2021" three years later, but neither saw a vote. 

So why not?

A national Election Day holiday may look like a "quick fix" to lawmakers despite various issues, said American University professor and executive-in-residence Capri S. Cafaro, who is a former Democratic leader of the Ohio Senate.

She said both state and national lawmakers may be more focused on other ways to make voting accessible, like expanding early voting — another measure helpful to those who can't get out of work to vote. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 70% of ballots in the 2020 national election were cast before Election Day. 

Credit: U.S. Census Bureau
This U.S. Census Bureau graph tracks the use of different voting methods in presidential elections from 2004 to 2020.

Lack of attention isn't the only roadblock. Along with pushback from the private sector, Cafaro said lawmakers may be concerned about unintended consequences for other voter turnout efforts and legislation. 

"They could say, 'Well, you have this day off, why do you need all this extra time to vote?'" Cafaro said. "The whole point behind being able to vote early is to give voters the flexibility, just in case they can't vote on Election Day itself."

While early voting was popular in 2020, not all states allow it. Availability of absentee voting also varies, with voters sometimes needing to meet specific qualifications. Further complicating matters, many voters face new barriers — the Brennan Center counts 20 states where some form of restriction has been placed on voting since the 2020 elections.

Credit: The Brennan Center

Another common objection is that national holidays don't guarantee everyone the day off — essential workers, retail employees and various others may still be expected to work as usual. 

"I think going in the direction of having more businesses closed on Election Day is good," Georgetown University public policy and government professor Jonathan Ladd said. "The key is, it probably needs to be a holiday where the laws and the policies encourage as many businesses to be closed as possible, rather than something that just government and white-collar workers have off."

The idea of guaranteeing time off to vote has gained steam among some companies in recent years. Patagonia has given its workers the day off since 2016, and more than 1,000 companies have pledged with ElectionDay.org to give employees time off to vote or distribute information on voting. Large employers like Walmart and Starbucks guaranteed time off or flexibility to vote in the 2020 presidential elections. 

What's next?

For now, the decision remains in the hands of state lawmakers. Election Day is a paid holiday in more than a dozen states, at least for state employees. A larger number of states require employers to provide some time off to vote, if only a couple hours. CNBC lists 29 states in this category, plus the District of Columbia. Only 24 of them require the time off be paid. 

Some lawmakers want to expand that list. Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA) and several fellow Democrats introduced legislation in April to make employers provide their employees at least two hours of paid leave to vote in a federal election. The bill — called the Time Off to Vote Act — has not seen a vote in Congress. A previous version had similar results. 

As for a national Election Day holiday, the proposal may have the best chance of becoming law as part of a larger bill. 

"One of the things that holds back legislation ... is the attention of Congress and the president, which is limited," Ladd said. "Once they're focusing on an election reform bill at all, it's slightly easier to include other reforms."


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