Jacob Soboroff: The U.S. ranks near the bottom of all nations in voter participation
Soboroff: Tuesday was set in 1845, to help voters traveling by horse and buggy
Nations with highest voter turnout hold elections on weekends or holidays, he writes
He says weekend elections would help those in school or working to vote more easily
Editor’s Note: Jacob Soboroff is the executive director of Why Tuesday?, a nonpartisan organization founded in 2005 to find solutions to increase voter turnout and participation in elections. He is also MTV’s “Power of 12” election correspondent.
Today, Iowans will kick off the Republican nominating process for president of the United States with the first-in-the-nation caucuses. But why a Tuesday?
The short answer: We vote on Tuesday for absolutely no good reason. This is true especially when you consider the United States, arguably the world’s most famous democracy, has ranked near the bottom of all nations in voter participation for more than half a century. And that’s not because, as Mitt Romney suggested to me last month, we need great candidates to increase voter turnout. Heard of JFK? Reagan?
The little-bit-longer answer: We vote on Tuesday because of a law passed in 1845 meant to make voting convenient for Americans traveling by horse and buggy. Seriously. When Congress set out to pick a day for Americans to vote, ultimately settling on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, voting could take two days: a day to get to the county seat to vote and a day to get back for market day on Wednesday. They couldn’t travel on the Christian sabbath, so by process of elimination, Tuesday, the first convenient day of the week, was chosen. It was as simple as that.
In 2012, it’s as dumb as that. Just a few weeks ago I sat in Tom Thumb diner in Fort Dodge, Iowa, and as I looked out the window in one of the most fertile farming states in our country, I didn’t notice a single Iowan hitting the highway in a horse-drawn carriage. So why are we still voting on a day set for a time when slavery was legal, only white males voted, less than half of our 50 states had been established and “automobile” was a made-up word?
Since World War II, American voter turnout has averaged under 50% in federal elections. In 2008, with unprecedented excitement about the presidential campaign and record money spent by the candidates, voter turnout was about 64%, not a record, and a third of all eligible voters didn’t make it to the polls. To understand the benefits to democracy of weekend voting, all you need to do is look at the nations with the highest voter turnout and realize they vote on weekends or national holidays.
In an America where 45 million 18- to 29-year-olds, the largest potential voting bloc in the country, are in school or at work all day, where single parents have to take care of their kids, and many of us, as much as we want to, are prevented by other obligations from making it to the polls in the middle of the week, it’s clear it’s time to move Election Day to the weekend.
Critics and contrarians say that in an age of early and absentee voting, moving Election Day to the weekend isn’t necessary. Indeed, that’s exactly what Newt Gingrich said when I met him after my recent meal in Fort Dodge. But as I politely reminded him, absentee and early voting is not allowed in the Iowa caucuses. In about 14 other states, regular voting is still only Tuesday – and in person, if you don’t have an approved excuse.
You don’t have to remind me that moving Election Day isn’t a pocketbook or kitchen table issue. I’m well aware election reform couldn’t be less sexy or more wonky. Just last week I was asked by Simon Conway, the Iowa radio host, if the push to move Election Day was a “serious campaign.” I paraphrased what Thomas Paine once said: Voting is the right upon which all other rights are protected
That’s exactly why Ambassador Andrew Young, congressional scholar Norman J. Ornstein and Drum Major Institute Chairman Bill Wachtel founded WhyTuesday.org, why U.S. Rep. Steve Israel, D-New York, and Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wisconsin, have introduced the Weekend Voting Act into Congress to move Election Day to Saturday and Sunday, and why I went to Iowa in December to ask our presidential candidates what they’d do to protect our right to vote.
Although he didn’t know why we vote when we do, 2012 candidate Rick Santorum said it best: “I don’t think there’s anything magical about Tuesdays.”
Any teenager will tell you that when your computer starts running slow, you don’t sit around and hope that it fixes itself. You upgrade your operating system. The operating system of our nation, our democracy, is broken. There’s certainly no silver bullet that will increase American voter participation. But we’ve voted on the same day for 166 years. Our voter turnout is terrible. It’s time the United States upgrades to a voting system 2.0, and we should start with weekend voting.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jacob Soboroff.