Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, dismissed a House proposal for sweeping election reform by attacking the specific proposal in a much larger bill that would make Election Day a paid federal holiday as a “power grab that’s smelling more and more like what it is.”
A power grab, he intimated, because more federal workers are Democrats.
But the issue is much larger than that – and the bill he opposed would strike at the electoral power structure Republicans have been able to build.
That the US votes on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November is a notable tradition, but it’s also a relic of a byogne agrarian era. Most other developed countries vote either on a weekend or have made Election Day a holiday, according to research by Pew.
One funny thing about his opposition to the idea of a paid federal holiday on Election Day is that in McConnell’s home state of Kentucky, presidential Election Day is already a paid state government holiday. And civilians in Kentucky are entitled up to four unpaid hours by law to vote. Many states have similar laws.
Regardless, McConnell’s opposition keeps Democrats’ proposals off the Senate floor and thus nowhere near becoming law.
The bill also would have prohibited the purging of voter rolls, which was extremely controversial in Georgia this year as the Republican candidate for governor – Brian Kemp, then the secretary of state – sought to purge the rolls, which coincidentally could have helped him on Election Day. The courts got involved in the voter roll issue. Kemp won the election.
In Florida, another state where state leaders have worked hard over the years to purge voter rolls and make it harder for people to vote, voters went in the opposite direction on Election Day and chose to restore voting rights to people with prior felonies. That process, however, was slowed by state lawmakers.
The 2018 midterm election saw a higher portion of Americans participate than any midterm election in decades. More than 116.7 million people cast ballots. But that’s only about 46% of the voting age population, according to data from Edison Research.
More people will vote in next year’s presidential election, but not even close to everyone who can.
There’s no indication that making Election Day a holiday would markedly raise turnout. In fact, a large and growing portion of Americans don’t vote on Election Day at all. They voted early or absentee or, as a few states now require, by mail. The percentage of non-Election Day voting is not yet entirely clear for 2018, but to give a sense of how big that block is, it was 35% in 2014, 42% in 2016 and is expected to grow.
There has, however, been a movement among some corporations to encourage voting by giving their employees time to vote, albeit often not the whole day, meeting-free days to give employees flexibility or helping provide access to mail-in ballots.
What seemed to anger McConnell more than the Election Day holiday proposal was a provision in Democrats’ bill that would give federal workers multiple paid days to help at US polling stations.
“Just what America needs,” he said. “Another paid holiday and a bunch of government workers being paid to go out and work, I assume our colleagues on the other side, on their campaigns. This is the Democrat plan to restore democracy? A brand new week of paid vacation for every federal employee who’d like to hover around while you cast your ballot?”
Another provision of the bill would end gerrymandering, which both parties have employed to protect members of Congress, but which Republicans, controlling more state legislatures, have used it to greater effect.
William Adler, a computational research analyst at Princeton, wrote in The New York Times after the midterms that specially drawn districts in Ohio, North Carolina, Michigan and Texas helped mute the effects of increased Democratic turnout in 2018. The Supreme Court is set to consider the issue with regard to North Carolina.
That is of a piece with efforts over the years, mostly by Republicans, to enact new voter ID laws. Such laws have made voting more difficult for minorities, the federal Commission on Civil Rights said in a report issued in September.
Republicans are more likely to benefit when fewer people vote, and was even an alleged strategy of the Trump campaign in 2016, to make Hillary Clinton an unattractive candidate and drive down turnout.
That’s because people who don’t vote are generally more likely to support Democrats when they do. Fifty-one percent of nonvoters lean toward Democrats a Pew survey in 2014 compared likely voters to nonvoters compared to 30% who leaned toward the GOP.
Minorities, a strong constituency for Democrats, comprised 43% of the nonvoters and 22% of the likely voters.
White voters were about 66% of the adult population that year, but about 77% of likely voters and 55% of nonvoters. Latinos, in particular, are less likely to vote. They were 15% of the adult population that year, but just 6% of the likely voter population. They’ve grown as a percentage of the population, however and were 11% of the voters in 2016, according to exit polls.
A new Pew study projects the portion of nonwhite voters will grow to a third in 2020 and Latinos could overtake African-Americans as the largest nonwhite voting bloc. They voted 66% in favor of Clinton in 2016. The national demographics have been moving against Republicans for some time, but they have been able to maintain the majority of power in Washington despite that. The bill Democrats unveiled, with its assault on gerrymandering and enticements to bring more voters to the polls represented a challenge to that control Republicans have been able to maintain.