Millions of Americans will head to the polls today to elect a new crop of representatives to advance their interests in Washington and statehouses around the country. But millions more will have no say in who runs the country for the next two to six years, and not because they’re too lazy or indifferent to vote. According to a Census Bureau survey, the No. 1 reason that registered voters ended up not voting in the 1996 presidential election was “No time off/too busy.”
Well, too bad. America votes on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. (Early voting and no-excuse absentee voting is also available in the days and weeks leading up to Election Day in many, but not all, states.) That’s just the way it has to be. Or, wait … no it doesn’t. Why are we voting on Tuesdays? Who even thought of this? Doesn’t anyone realize how terrible and weird this is? For answers to these questions and more, we turned to Jacob Soboroff, executive director at Why Tuesday?, a group that, you could probably guess, is not enamored with how we vote.
In a nutshell, explain why we vote on Tuesdays.
The really short version is there’s no good reason in 2010. And the little bit longer version is because of an antiquated law meant to make voting convenient for the agrarian society of 1845 when the law was passed. At that time, we traveled by horse and buggy. It would take a day or longer to get to the county seat to vote, a day to get back, and you couldn’t vote on days of religious observance, so the weekend was out. Wednesday was market day, so by process of elimination Tuesday became the most convenient day.
It strikes me that we no longer have the same concerns that they had in 1845.
I do not travel often by horse and buggy, and I don’t think that many other people do today either. So what we’re saying is, just like when your computer starts to run slow, you update your operating system, because there’s no point in working with an old system, and our voting system needs an upgrade, we need to go to a voting system 2.0. There’s absolutely no point in voting on a day and in a way that was set for the United States when slavery was still in existence and there were less than half of the current states that there are today.
So would your preferred alternative be making Tuesday a national holiday, or do you want us to vote on a Saturday? Or all weekend? What would be your ideal situation?
We want to start a national dialogue about this issue, election reform, which, I admit, it’s not a sexy issue; it’s a pretty wonky and nerdy issue, but as far as democracy goes, there’s no more important issue. And as far as specifics of the law, in Congress there’s the weekend voting act, which was put forward by Steve Israel on Long island, and that would change Election Day from the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November to the weekend, Saturday and Sunday. Mayor Bloomberg has endorsed it, Barack Obama when I spoke to him said he thought it was a good idea, and San Francisco tomorrow is voting on moving Election Day to the weekend.
In all these conversations you’ve had with politicians across the country, did any of them know why we vote on Tuesday, or did you have to tell them?
Some of them did, but a lot of them didn’t, and I’d say a majority of them don’t. The irony of that is that this day, Election Day, is arguably the most important day to any of these politicians’ lives, because it’s the day where they either get to keep their job or lose it, and to approach senators and U.S. representatives and governors and have them not know just shows the irony of the thing.
So who knew?
Barbara Boxer knew when I asked her. John Kerry did not know, Dick Lugar, the Republican from Indiana, did not know. I mean, these are international statesmen and stateswomen, and they don’t know the answer to the simple question, “Why are we voting on Tuesday?”
Do you think that it might be a partisan issue if the people who would become able to vote on the weekend are low-income people who can’t take off from work to vote on a Tuesday?
I actually don’t agree with that. A lot of people will argue that, that getting more people to vote is a Democratic thing. I really disagree, and even our commission is bi-partisan. Jack Kemp before he died was one of our co-chairs. Ken Mehlman is one of our advisory-board members. I think that getting more people to vote is non-partisan, because I don’t think working people are Democrats exclusively, and I don’t even think working people are majority Democrats. Across the country, working people are Republicans and Democrats. So that’s why this isn’t a red issue or a blue issue, it’s a red, white, and blue issue, because the more people that vote, the more reflective our democracy is going to be of our population.
So is there resistance coming from somewhere? Are there people saying, “No, Tuesday is perfect, let’s leave it Tuesday. It can’t get any better than Tuesday.”?
John McCain said something like, “I’m not sure that people wouldn’t just go fishing or on vacation if Election Day was moved to the weekend or to a holiday.” I don’t know if he was joking or what, but I really don’t think there’s a ton of resistance. The issue is getting it moving in Washington, D.C. Our movement was founded and inspired by people with close connection to Martin Luther King Jr., and it was founded on the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 … We would like to see a voting rights act of 2011, where people come together again in the interest of democracy and honor the legacy of the Civil Rights Act and the hard work that suffragists have done in United States history to pass a law that removes the one huge remaining barrier to getting people out to vote.
If you had to play devil’s advocate, could you think of any reason that Tuesday would be better than Saturday? Any reason anyone would want to keep it on a Tuesday?
Um … if I was an elected official, and I was elected on a Tuesday, the only reason I would keep it on a Tuesday is because that’s how I got my job in the first place. Otherwise I don’t see a reason why we wouldn’t change it. And really, the onus is on our elected leaders in Washington, D.C., to prove me wrong.
So all it takes is another act of Congress.
Just a bill. Just a bill and the president’s signature. If we have a Voting Rights Act of 2011, perhaps when we vote for president for 2012 we’ll be voting on the weekends.
You mentioned that San Francisco has this ballot initiative, could New York City do something similar?
Last Friday Mayor Bloomberg came out and endorsed the San Francisco initiative, and he has pledged to work to do the same in New York City and New York State, and he’s endorsed national weekend voting. So I think that Mayor Bloomberg is probably, on a national level, the biggest advocate that we have. And I think he has a lot of power to move the needle on this, to get people talking and to actually see some real change.
What kind of setup do other Western democracies have? Are they all voting on the weekends?
Among the G-8, we rank dead last in voter participation. And when you look at the list of democracies around the world, where we’re ranked 139th out of 172, the top democracies vote on a weekend, vote on a national holiday — some of them, in fairness, have compulsory voting, where you have to show up — but the majority of them are on a weekend or a national holiday.
It seems like a no-brainer. It’s kind of strange, actually, that it’s taken this long for someone to point this out — why are we voting on a Tuesday?
It’s, frankly, silly.