Election Day should replace Columbus Day as a federal holiday

Election Day should replace Columbus Day as a federal holiday
Election ballot box Photo: Nashville Election Commission

The first major bill that the Democrats introduced when they took over the House of Representatives this year was one that would make Election Day a federal holiday and encourage private employers to give workers the day off. Needless to say, the idea was rejected by Republicans who have made a fetish out of voter suppression. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called the bill a “power grab,” apparently because it would extend power to the hands of more voters.

But the idea makes a whole lot of sense. And this week we’re coming up on a perfect example of how it might happen.

October 14 is a federal holiday, just one that you probably forgot: Columbus Day. The holiday was established 85 years ago to honor the contributions of Italian-Americans. The devastating effect of Columbus’ arrival on Native Americans, along with questions about his own character, have made the holiday a target for critics for decades.

So what if we swapped out Columbus Day for Election Day as a national holiday? Changing one legal holiday for another means that federal workers won’t be getting an additional day off (appealing to the Republicans’ worker-focused parsimony).

What it would mean is that workers would have a better chance of being able to cast a ballot. There is no federal law that requires employers to give workers time off to vote, although some states do.

Voter turnout in the U.S. is appallingly low. It was 56 percent in the 2016 election. The most common reason for not voting cited by people in polls is being too busy or not being able to get time off from work. Some of that might be a rationalization of the-dog-ate-my-homework variety, but for many workers it’s no doubt true.

As a course in civics, having more people vote would be a good thing. As a course in Republican politics, it’s anathema.

Instead of actually trying to win over a wider array of voters, the GOP has been on a march to limit voting to its core supporters. Restrictive voter ID laws, eliminating early voting and gerrymandering have all been staples of Republican electoral strategy for years. While the GOP cries loudly about voter fraud, which is virtually nonexistent, it’s also the party of the candidate caught trying to steal a Congressional election. 

What Republicans fear is that if more voters turn out at the polls, fewer Republicans will be elected. Instead of reflecting on what that says about the GOP’s need to protect policies that only a minority of Americans support, including the party’s opposition to LGBTQ rights, Republicans have decided to protect their position of power at all costs, even at cost to the democratic process.

Still, come next Monday, it would be worth taking a second to think about the holiday that’s easy to forget, and whether it might not be more appropriate to celebrate the central premise of our democracy instead.

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