Prompted by a student journalist to address the consistent low turnout in U.S. elections, President Obama this week endorsed the idea of a national voting holiday, an idea most prominently put forth at the federal level by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
As first reported nationally by Slate, the president was speaking with staff reporter Dan Corey of Rutgers University's student newspaper, The Daily Targum, when they had this exchange:
THE TARGUM: You have pointed out many times that voter turnout in the United States is very low, especially compared to other developed nations. But in many other countries, the government automatically registers voters and holds elections on days that are weekend days or national holidays. Do you think it’s time for the U.S. to follow their lead?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Absolutely. We are the only advanced democracy that makes it deliberately difficult for people to vote. And some of it has to do with the nature of our history and our Constitution, where we allow individual states to determine their own processes for structuring elections within certain boundaries.
I think that we know some states like Oregon are doing a much better job at extending mail-in voting, increasing tools like online voting that are safe and secure, give people flexibility over a long period of time, (and) early voting. And so everything we can do to make sure that we’re increasing participation is something that we should promote and encourage. Our democracy is not going to function well when only half or a third of eligible voters are participating.
The single most dramatic political change that could occur in this country—and the best way for us to relieve the frustrations that people feel around the political process—would be if we had greater participation that was more reflective of the day-to-day concerns that people have.
Creating a national holiday for voting—which would give working people, parents, students, and the population at-large better poll access—has long been a policy proposal for voting rights activists who argue that single-day voting disenfranchises millions of people each year. Though not the only needed reform to lift turnout, experts argue (and evidence shows) it would go a long way toward expanding civic participation.
As Common Dreams reported at the time, Sen. Sanders in 2014 proposed a national "Democracy Day" designed to increase turnout and as a direct counter to Republican-led efforts to suppress voting nationwide.
"In America," stated Sanders at the time, "we should be celebrating our democracy and doing everything possible to make it easier for people to participate in the political process. Election Day should be a national holiday so that everyone has the time and opportunity to vote. While this would not be a cure-all, it would indicate a national commitment to create a more vibrant democracy.
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In a separate op-ed supporting his proposal, Sanders added, "Throughout American history, people have fought and died to protect our democracy and set an example for other nations. When billionaires and corporations tilt elections, conservatives suppress voting and crucial voters feel unengaged, what kind of example for the world is that?"
In early 2015, Sanders submitted legislation—titled the 'Democracy Day Act of 2015'—that would officially "designate Election Day as a public holiday."
On Friday morning, citing news reporting of Obama's support for the idea, the Sanders campaign tweeted:
Election Day should be a national holiday so that everyone has the time and opportunity to vote.https://t.co/pvCaftpJ2o
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) May 13, 2016