Should Election Day Be a Holiday?

Less than half of eligible voters typically vote in national elections in the U.S.. The House of Representatives has passed a bill to encourage voter participation by making Election Day a national holiday. This activity explores the arguments for and against this and other proposals for making it easier for people to vote. 

To The Teacher:

Should all Americans get off from work on Election Day? In March 2018, the House of Representatives passed a piece of legislation that, if it became law, would make Election Day a federal holiday. In a country where less than half of eligible voters typically cast ballots in national elections, the idea of the new bill is to encourage more people to get to the polls by removing one major obstacle that prevents people from voting on election day: work. The legislation has met with opposition from Republicans in Congress, who have called the new bill a "power grab." 

This lesson features two readings that take a closer look at the idea of making Election Day a federal holiday, as well as other proposals for encouraging participation in elections. The first reading looks at the debate around the recent proposal for the holiday. The second reading considers other measures that might increase voter participation in our democracy—including automatic voter registration, provisions for early voting, or mandatory voting. Questions for discussion follow each reading.


Vote here
By Erik Hersman 



Reading 1:
Should Election Day be a Holiday?

Should Americans all get off from work on Election Day? In March 2018, the House of Representatives passed a piece of legislation that, if it became law, would make Election Day a federal holiday. As reporter Matthew Haag wrote in a January 31, 2019, article for the New York Times, the proposal for making Election Day a national holiday is a part of a larger bill designed by lawmakers to improve the way our elections function. Haag explained:

[A] House of Representatives bill titled For the People Act of 2019 is the first major legislation by the new Democratic-controlled House and puts forward seven major changes to elections nationwide. The proposals are wide ranging, including changes to how people register to vote and new requirements for states to secure voting systems….

The bill also seeks to remove a major hurdle that prevents people from voting: work. A census survey of roughly 19 million registered voters who did not participate in the 2016 election found that 14.3 percent, or about 2.7 million people, said they were too busy to vote. The legislation proposes making Election Day, the first Tuesday in November, a public holiday just like Washington’s Birthday, Independence Day and Christmas.

It would grant the federal government’s two million full-time employees a paid day off, and would make companies, many of which shut down on federal holidays, more likely to grant their workers a day off.



While the legislation aims to increase participation in our democracy, it has met with opposition in Congress, which makes it unlikely that the bill will pass the Senate, at least for now. In a January 17, 2019 opinion article for the Washington Post, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Tennessee) denounced the bill as a “power grab” and derided Democrats for trying to give federal workers more time off than they already have:

[House Democrats have] been hard at work angling for more control over what you can say about them and how they get reelected. They’re trying to clothe this power grab with clichés about “restoring democracy” and doing it “For the People,” but their proposal is simply a naked attempt to change the rules of American politics to benefit one party. It should be called the Democrat Politician Protection Act….

Democrats would also like you to pay for generous new benefits for federal bureaucrats. Their bill proposes making Election Day a new paid holiday for government workers and six additional days’ paid vacation for federal bureaucrats to work the polls during any election. This is the Democrats’ plan to “restore democracy”: extra taxpayer-funded vacation for bureaucrats to hover around while Americans cast their ballots.



Progressive lawmakers fired back at McConnell. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) tweeted: "Voting isn’t a 'power grab.' It’s democracy, and it’s literally the entire point of our representative government."

According to the Pew Research Center, there is actually bipartisan support for making Election Day a holiday: 71% of Democrats and 59% of Republicans favor it.

The main effect of the bill would likely be to bring more people out to the polls. In a story for USA Today on February 1, 2019, reporter Alia Dastagir quoted Kristen Clarke of of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights on this point: "Making election day a holiday would transform the culture around voting in our country and most inevitably improve turnout and participation rates across the board.  Enduring long lines, obtaining access to child care, finding the money to take public transportation to the polls are all real barriers that make it harder for people to exercise their voice on Election Day. By clearing away some of those hurdles, we would inevitably make it easier for people to participate."  Writes Dastagir:

According to a United States Census Bureau survey of about 19 million registered voters who did not vote in the 2016 general election, 14.3 percent said busy schedules was the main reason they didn't cast a ballot. A little more than 60% of U.S. citizens cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election, according to Pew, and whites made up 73.3% of them. Those who did not vote "were more likely to be younger, less educated, less affluent, and nonwhite.”

[Kristen Clarke of of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights] said it's difficult to speculate whether Democrats or Republicans would benefit more from an election holiday, but she would expect to see some specific groups with higher participation rates. "I think you would need real data over a few elections to make an assessment about partisan impact, if any," she said. "But what I can say is that more working mothers, more young people, more low-income workers with long hours, more of our emergency personnel are all constituencies who we would see participating in higher rates if Election Day were a holiday."

In the 2016 presidential election, 53% of Americans making under $30,000 a year voted Democratic and 49% voted Republican. Among voters aged 18-29, 55% voted Democratic and 37% Republican.


Would providing federal employees with an extra paid holiday be worthwhile if it means that more people vote? Our elected officials will continue debating the costs and benefits.


For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  1. What are some of the arguments for and against making Election Day a federal holiday? Which ones did you find most convincing?  

  2. Why could making Election Day a holiday be seen as favoring one party over another? Do you think this is a legitimate concern? Why or why not?
  3. If Election Day were a federal holiday, do you think you and your family would be more likely to vote? Or would the day become like any other day off?



Reading 2:  Should Voting Be Required?

The proposal to make Election Day a federal holiday is just one of a number of steps that could be taken to improve low turnout for U.S. elections. Some countries that have significantly higher levels of voter participation than the United States have automatic voter registration. Others actually require people to vote. 

The aim of automatic voter registration is to increase turnout by simply removing the sometimes cumbersome step of registering to vote from the process. GQ staff writer Jay Willis explained the idea in a November 14, 2018 article:

What is automatic voter registration?

A pretty simple concept, actually: A federal law in place since the Clinton administration requires state agencies—so, departments of motor vehicles, primarily—to provide residents with the "opt-in" opportunity to register to vote when filling out paperwork. Usually, this takes the form of a little box on your application to renew a driver license. By checking it, you authorize the agency to update your voter registration information, or, if you're new to the state, to enter your name into the rolls. If you don't check it, you remain registered at your old address, or, if you're new to the state, not at all.

"Automatic voter registration" means switching to an opt-out structure; by default, everyone who interacts with a state agency is automatically registered to vote, unless you check the little box, which directs state employees not to update your information. Most AVR schemes also do away with paperwork, and instead instruct agencies to electronically submit information to the relevant election officials….


Willis notes that the state of Georgia has placed registration holds on tens of thousands of applications over minor discrepancies, and has purged some 1.4 million voters from the rolls since 2012. Texas has archaic rules  that make large-scale registration drives almost impossible. Other states require prospective voters to register a month in advance. Automatic voter registration would limit such obstacles and make it easier for people who want to vote to cast their ballots.

Other countries take even more drastic measures to improve voter turnout. Can you imagine if voting was mandatory? Currently, 22 countries around the world have mandatory voting, and ten of those countries enforce the policy, including Australia, Brazil, Belgium, Peru, and Switzerland. According to Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, Australia adopted compulsory voting in 1924 after turnout there dropped to less than 60 percent in 1922. (By contrast, turnout in U.S. presidential election years barely exceeds 60 percent, and in midterm elections, it’s in the low 40s.) Australians who fail to vote can be fined. And yet the mandate to vote has the support of about three-fourths of the population.

Marcus argues that beyond simply expanding turnout, mandatory voting could have other beneficial effects on our democracy:

Compulsory voting would reduce the cost of elections. Candidates, parties, and outside groups would no longer have to devote resources to turning out voters — the requirement would do it for them. You might think that this would simply have the perverse effect of freeing up money to spend on ever more television advertising. Maybe, but there is only so much airtime, and only so much marginal return on advertising investment.

Some critics of compulsory voting argue that it would result in dumbed-down campaigns to appeal to an even more uninformed electorate. To which the only possible response is: Have you been watching politics recently? Indeed, since suppressing the vote by turning off voters in disgust won’t work, there is a countervailing argument that negative advertising would be reduced.

Even more important, compulsory voting would have the salutary effect of forcing parties to appeal to all voters, not just the committed base they can motivate to get to the polls.



In a democracy, voting is one of the most basic requirements of an active citizenry. Should following through on that act be a responsibility left up to the individual, or should it be mandated by law?


For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  1. According to the reading, what is automatic voter registration? How does it work? What might be some of the arguments for or against it?
  1. Do you think mandatory voting is a good idea? Why or why not?
  1. Some people might argue that they do not vote because they do not like any of the options presented, or because they believe their vote will not make a difference. What do you think of this position? How might you respond?
  1. Can you think of other ways that we might increase participation in elections? What seem to you to be the most promising options?