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Opinion: The unintended consequences of making Election Day a federal holiday

Opinion By Joshua A. Douglas

(CNN) — It’s often toward the top of the progressive wish list of voting rights reforms: Make Election Day a federal holiday.

recent study from Pew Research Center revealed that an overwhelming number of Americans from both parties support the move — with 68% of Republicans and 78% of Democrats in agreement.

In February, Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo of California introduced a proposed federal law to adopt the measure, called the Election Day Holiday Act. Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders has frequently indicated his support for making Election Day a federal holiday “so that everyone has the opportunity to vote.” Sanders proposed similar legislation to create a federal holiday for Election Day during his campaign for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.

But it’s not clear that declaring Election Day a federal holiday would fix the problem of low voter turnout — and it could do more harm than good.

The proposal has a laudable goal: to increase voter turnout in the US (which is typically abysmal). According to Pew, about two-thirds of the voter-eligible population cast a ballot in the 2020 presidential election, meaning that one-third of voters sat out an election that many viewed as extremely consequential for American democracy.

The 2018 midterm election saw voter turnout of around 53.4%, according to Census Bureau data, which was the highest for a midterm election in decades, and people celebrated the historic engagement. The 2022 midterm election was not as high as 2018, with about 52.2% of the electorate participating, but was still strong by recent standards.

Set aside the valid question of whether we should celebrate when almost half of the electorate does not vote. Would making Election Day a federal holiday fix the problem?

Probably not.

Several states, including Indiana, West Virginia and Wisconsin, have already declared Election Day a state holiday, yet it’s unclear whether the policy has improved turnout in those places. An economist at Princeton who studied state holidays for voting concluded that “having an election holiday, by itself, is not an effective strategy to increase voter turnout.”

The measure could also harm the very voters it intends to help, particularly lower-income individuals who work for hourly wages and are not eligible for holiday pay. Their employers might close, giving them fewer hours to work. It could also make it harder for parents with young kids if their daycares close and they have to find alternative child care. (Although, if they can, parents certainly should bring their kids with them to vote to instill the value of democratic participation at a young age.)

Even if making Election Day a federal holiday increases turnout, the perverse result could be longer lines at the polls, which already poses problems for election officials and could deter some voters from showing up. Lines are already too long in some precincts, which could increase if more voters are concentrated into a single day.

Moreover, there’s valid concern that, if Congress declares Election Day to be a federal holiday, it is less likely to work toward more meaningful efforts that can have a bigger impact on voter turnout. Studies show that reform measures such as same-day voter registration and universal vote-by-mail could have a significant impact on easing access to the ballot, especially for minority voters, with few downsides. Congress should focus on enacting those reforms instead.

There is no question that we need to create a culture of democratic participation, and perhaps making Election Day a federal holiday could help on that front. Any measure to ease access to the ballot is a step in the right direction. Declaring Election Day a federal holiday is not necessarily negative — but it probably won’t help much and could cause real harm to the very voters it is trying to help, while potentially creating further strain on election administrators.

Voting is as American as baseball and apple pie, and though I’ve advocated jokingly that MLB’s Opening Day — which occurred at the end of March — should be an unofficial holiday, few suggest seriously that it should become an official day off. Although celebrating the new season with a federal holiday might help some fans watch their favorite team in action while creating a shared identity around our national pastime, it would likely create significant hardships for many other people. The same is true for Election Day.

Instead, let’s focus on meaningful voting reforms that are proven to work without unintended consequences.

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