Spoken-word performer Gil Scott-Heron famously said: “Nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something.” This truism came to mind recently as I was thinking about the conundrum Democrats face on voting rights.
Two key Democratic holdouts in the Senate — Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — are the focus of the national conversation on the stalled voting-rights legislation, but there is something other Democrats can do without them to remove barriers to voting: treat Election Day as a holiday. If many employers shut their doors, many employees could make it to the voting booth.
Right now there are 14 states where Democrats control the Legislature and governorship. Yet of those 14, only three have made Election Day a state holiday: Hawaii, Illinois and New York. That’s right, not even California, where Democrats have held the Legislature and the governorship since 2011, has made election day a state holiday.
It’s an unexpected wrinkle in the conversation when you consider that some red-leaning states, have Election Day holidays. Blue states have often been willing to get ahead of the federal government — on issues like the legalization of marijuana, marriage equality and recognizing a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. But most aren’t making Election Day a priority.
There’s a disconnect. Nationally, Democrats say voting access is important. In the states, Democrats mostly aren’t making it happen. Perhaps they are comfortable with mail-in or early-voting options, as some states have allowed, especially during the pandemic. But still that’s not a holiday.
By comparison, the policies of state Republicans reflect national rhetoric — whether it’s reproductive rights, gun ownership or critical race theory, there’s not a whole lot of daylight between the national party and the state Republican parties. So while Senate Democrats weigh addressing the filibuster, I wonder what Democrats in Oregon and Washington are waiting on. Especially given that 65% of Americans support making election day a national holiday and 43% of voters already live in one of the 19 states with some form of voting holiday.
“If I had my way, and I think it is really important, every Election Day would be a day off,” President Biden said last June.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United States ranks 26th out of 32 nations for voter turnout. Not a good look for the self-proclaimed greatest democracy on Earth.
But beyond that, there is another practical reason state Democrats should be flexing their muscles: A federal holiday may not cover everyone who wants to vote. Federal holidays do not require private employers to give employees a paid day off. So low-income workers, those who can’t afford to miss a pay day, wouldn’t necessarily benefit from an election holiday. Not to mention our tendency to turn every holiday into a reason to go shopping. Who do you think would be working in the stores then?
However, while a blanket piece of legislation from the feds might not protect low-income workers, a state law could have more flexibility. In Arizona, for example, state law created two three-hour blocks to allow people to vote during normal work hours. So if someone normally works before 9 a.m., they can show up at 9 on Election Day. What’s stopping Democrats from finding more creative ways to create a holiday in as many states as possible that accommodates the fiscal concerns of employers while still expanding the window for people to vote?
If the goal is to reflect the importance of voting, even a symbolic gesture of trying to create a holiday is more on message with the White House than simply waving an angry finger at two U.S. senators who have blocked voting-rights legislation. Take the battle to the states. That’s one page Democrats need to tear from the Republican handbook.
The left has been so focused on national elections it didn’t notice it was being outmaneuvered on the state level, until Democrats were gerrymandered out of power. Republicans did that by enacting policies promoted by national figures in their party.
There is nothing stopping governors and legislatures from making Election Day a state holiday. It won’t pay to wait for federal action.
LZ Granderson is an op-ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
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