Whatever the results of this year’s election, one thing is clear: it will be decided by fewer than half of eligible voters. In the 2012 presidential election, voter turnout was 53.7%. But midterm elections have traditionally brought many fewer voters to the polls. In 2010, for example, turnout was 36.9%.
Why not give everyone the day off? Some have argued that making Election Day an official holiday would increase turnout, especially among those who can’t take time off from work. Others object, saying anyone who’s not interested enough to take time off is likely not interested enough to cast an informed ballot.
The debate also hinges on whether the benefits to the public of more people voting are greater than the costs to private businesses of time lost from work. But how do you measure the cost of the republic’s upkeep?
Election Day has never been a national holiday, but in colonial times and in the early years of the Republic voting was often combined with visiting neighbors and conducting business. It was also an occasion for which many turned out, even if they weren’t there to vote. A traveler in Virginia described his experiences when he arrived at the Hanover Court House on the day of an election in 1778:
The moment I alighted [from the stage], a wretched pug-nosed fellow assailed me, to swap watches. I had hardly shaken him off, when I was attacked by a wild Irishman, who insisted on my “swapping horses” with him; and, in a twinkling ran up the pedigree of his horse . . . Treating his importunity with little respect, I was near being involved in a boxing match . . .
I had hardly escaped this dilemma, when my attention was attracted to a fight between two very unwieldy, fat men, foaming and puffing like two furies, until one succeeded in twisting his forefinger in a side-lock of the other’s hair, and was in the act of thrusting, by this purchase, his thumb into his adversary’s eye.
Of course, even if voters turned out, there were much stricter limits on who could vote. In the colonies, typically only white, male property owners who were twenty-one or older could vote. African Americans were excluded until the nineteenth century and women until the twentieth.
If Election Day were a holiday, could Americans commit more of their personal time and energy to the work of citizenship? Would you be willing to make a greater investment in the nation’s common wealth if you had a little more time?