By Nancy Smith
Blessed Voting Day. Remember that? When we all had access to the same information about candidates and voted as part of a shared patriotic experience, good or bad?
Almost every election year I write this column. Absolutely no one listens. But I think I make a good case and probably will never stop trying. Early voting — making what should be one glorious day into a costly, noisy, contentious season — always cheats the democratic process, but probably never more than this year when we’re deciding between probably the two most unpopular presidential candidates in American history.
Floridians are already voting by mail. It’s already started. Thousands don’t have to pay attention anymore. Yet, you and I both know Trump and Clinton, being Trump and Clinton, will present us with more potential game-changers before Nov. 8. More shockers. Maybe that’s OK for you, who wouldn’t change your vote if your candidate pistol-whipped a little old lady at a campaign rally. But some voters, maybe a critical number, are going to wish they’d waited until Nov. 8. Particularly this year.
That unanticipated, 11th-hour surprise happened in 2002 in Minnesota, an early-voting state, when Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Democrat, was killed days before the election. Those who voted for him early saw their votes negated and had no chance to re-vote. The loss of those votes, we’ve found out since, decided the election for Wellstone’s successor.
Information about candidates and issues crescendos. It builds, week upon week in an election year, particularly during the last month. Surveys have proven that voters absorb twice as much information about races on the ballot during the last week than in all the weeks leading up to Election Day.
Early voting is a great convenience in this day and age, I realize that. But convenience isn’t enough reason to spend the thousands upon thousands of dollars per each of Florida’s 67 counties. And it’s actually more of a convenience to political machines than to individuals. Year after election year, news services are full of reports of machines rounding up people with phone calls, warning of alarming problems and sending them scurrying to vote on the basis of the moment, before all the information is available.
The net effect is to offer political parties and special interests a chance to manipulate, to lock up blocs of votes in advance of Election Day and to keep opposition parties and candidates from offering another viewpoint.
When this year is over, can’t we start a conversation about returning to Voting Day? Can’t we just make it special? Make it a national holiday. Make it a day off, a day of national reverence, if you will. Triple the number of polling places, expand the hours so sites are open 20 hours and devote the whole of the day to getting ourselves and the elderly and infirm who need our help to the polls.
Return to voting day and make it a national holiday. Make it a day off, a day of national reverence
Why don’t we just do that? Pursuant to Chapter 2016-37, Laws of Florida, we still have the “vote-by-mail ballot” (formerly absentee ballot).
Doesn’t the fact that early voting is such dissonant chaos in America today tell us how poisoned our politics has become? The idea that we require days and days to convenience marginally interested or downright lazy people to vote just because one party distrusts the other makes no sense at all.
If you believe more people vote the more days you give them, you’re wrong. As the leading democracy in the world, the United States trails most developed economies in terms of voter turnout. To put it bluntly, U.S. voter participation is pitiful.
According to the Pew Research Center, a mere 65 percent of the voting-age population in the United States was registered to vote in 2012, which is laughable compared to Canada’s 91 percent. Even worse, only around half of eligible voters even bothered voting in the last presidential election. And voting for midterm congressional elections? Too sad to even mention here (though if you want to know, click here).
Many large democracies have already declared holidays during elections: Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, India, New Zealand. All those countries have higher voter turnout in national elections than the United States. Perhaps that’s due to some other factor, but maybe it’s as simple as having the day off.
Bernie Sanders first grabbed my attention some years back because for more than 15 years he has been a strong supporter of making Election Day a national holiday. In an op-ed piece in The Guardian in November 2014, Sanders wrote that when Congress got back to work that year, he would enact a law calling for a “Democracy Day” that would make Election Day a holiday.
“This would by no means be a cure-all for increasing turnout,” he wrote, “but it would mark one important step to increase participation and create the kind of political system the world can look upon as an example, not a failure.” Well, Sanders introduced his bill and, yes, it failed. But that doesn’t make it a bad idea. I think it would have increased voter turnout while giving supervisors of elections more time to educate voters and prepare for an orderly Election Day. But we’ll never know unless, please God, we make the bold move to try it.
Nancy Smith is the editor of Sunshine State News. She started her career at the Daily Mirror and The Observer in London before spending 28 years at The Stuart News/Port St. Lucie News as managing editor and associate editor. She was president of the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors in the mid-1990s. Reach her by email here, or follow her on twitter at @NancyLBSmith.