On Civil Rights and Weekend Voting
Thursday, November 11th, 2010
Last week, American voters swept in a new crop of leaders, and once again brought change to Washington, DC. What has not changed, however, is the precariously low voter participation in our nation. This year barely more than 40 percent of eligible Americans voted, while more than a third of those who voted in 2008 stayed home. Our country should follow in the footsteps of the citizens of San Francisco, who voted to remove one of the biggest causes of low voter participation: voting on Tuesdays. The history of the civil rights movement deserves as much. Let me explain.
Forty-five years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson put on his coat, took his daughters by the hand, and went to the Capitol for a historic event that was his happiest day as an American — signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As he sat with fountain pen in hand, surrounded by an unusual group of allies, from Everett Dirksen to Martin Luther King, LBJ made a prediction: “And every family across this great entire searching land will live stronger in liberty, will live more splendid in expectation, and will be prouder to be American because of the act that you have passed that I will sign today.”
The Voting Rights Act made a huge difference in peoples’ lives, confirming everyone’s right to vote — but that did not mean that those having the right would fulfill it by going to the voting booth. Sadly, “that short step into the voting booth and the greatest step for society” as Martin would herald, has gotten longer and longer, not shorter and shorter. Since 1968, the turnout of American voters in federal elections has gone down every single time save once. And now our nation ranks 139 out of 172 countries worldwide in voter turnout and dead last among the G8. The problem certainly isn’t the lack of resources; more money is spent in American elections by far than anywhere in the world. This year alone over $4 billion dollars will be spent hoping that 40,000,000 votes will be cast. That’s $100 per vote. How can we, the nation that created and nurtured modern democratic principles, expect other countries to see us as a model when we are such laggards in voter participation?
Having personally watched the Voting Rights Act being signed into law that August day, I can’t begin to imagine how we could have all been so wrong in believing that more Americans would vote once they were all truly free to do so. There has certainly been plenty for voters to care about since 1965: four wars, two horrific assassinations, and a near Depression.
And why is voter turnout lowest amongst our youngest voters who, after all, have the most at stake? Is it apathy, antipathy, or do they not realize that if they all voted there is a good chance the drinking age might go back to 18? Why are Americans not voting? One clue comes from a 2008 Census report, which cited the inconvenience of Tuesday as the most common reason people give for not voting.
Of course, there is apathy, and there is plenty of antipathy towards politics. But there are also continuing barriers to voting, obstacles that depress turnout for no good reason, and efforts to remove those obstacles are simply not on anyone’s agenda. Go look at the issues section of the RNC, DNC, and almost every campaign website.
There are lots proffered solutions out there from electronic registration to online voting, and they all should be given due consideration. But the one question no one can answer with a straight face is why Election Day is on Tuesday. As Chris Rock laments, no one ever throws a party on Tuesday in November unless they don’t want anyone to show up.
So “Why Tuesday?” Astonishingly, few Americans, including few members of Congress know. I will tell you the answer: The federal election system we have today was set by a simple act of Congress in 1845 it was an agrarian time so farmers needed a day to get to the county seat, a day to vote and a day to get back. In order to avoid a day that would interfere with days of religious observance, that left Tuesday and Wednesday. Wednesday was market day, so for 160 years Americans have voted on Tuesdays — even though the Wednesday market day is long forgotten, and over 85 percent of all Americans today live in and around cities.
If Congress can move President’s Day, Columbus Day and alas Martin Luther King’s Birthday celebration for the convenience of shoppers, shouldn’t they at least consider moving Election Day for the convenience of voters?
Surely the answer is yes! In the words of New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, “weekend voting is an idea whose time has come.” Weekend voting may not be the only way to finally make the dream of 1965 a reality, but it would certainly take us a long way toward shortening that step to the voting booth.