CREDIT: AP PHOTO/PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS
President Obama likes the idea of changing the way — or the day — Americans vote.
In an interview published Thursday, President Obama endorsed the idea of holding U.S. federal elections on weekends or national holidays. Right now, federal elections are always held on Tuesdays, because farmers in the 1840s needed multiple days to get to the polls in their buggies.
Though Obama has floated the idea of mandatory voting in the past, it doesn’t appear he’s ever explicitly supported changing the day elections are held.
What’s more, Obama endorsed the idea in an interview with a college student. Dan Corey, the editor-in-chief of Rutgers University’s The Daily Targum, was granted a 15-minute interview with the president after asking during a visit to the White House in April.
Here’s the exchange from the Targum:
THE TARGUM: You have pointed out many times that voter turnout in the United States is very low, especially compared to other developed nations. But in many other countries, the government automatically registers voters and holds elections on days that are weekend days or national holidays. Do you think it’s time for the U.S. to follow their lead?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Absolutely. We are the only advanced democracy that makes it deliberately difficult for people to vote. And some of it has to do with the nature of our history and our Constitution, where we allow individual states to determine their own processes for structuring elections within certain boundaries.
I think that we know some states like Oregon are doing a much better job at extending mail-in voting, increasing tools like online voting that are safe and secure, give people flexibility over a long period of time, (and) early voting. And so everything we can do to make sure that we’re increasing participation is something that we should promote and encourage. Our democracy is not going to function well when only half or a third of eligible voters are participating.
The single most dramatic political change that could occur in this country—and the best way for us to relieve the frustrations that people feel around the political process—would be if we had greater participation that was more reflective of the day-to-day concerns that people have.
Still, Obama did not indicate that his new-found support for changing Election Day would actually translate into action. If he did, that’d certainly make many progressives happy — in fact, a coalition of progressive groups launched a campaign last year urging Obama to make Election Day a federal holiday. While it would require an act of Congress to make Election Day a national holiday for all Americans, Obama could issue an executive order that would give a paid day off to federal workers.
The groups — which include Common Cause, Democracy Matters, and The Nation — argue that making Election Day a federal holiday would make it easier and more convenient for many people to vote. This is especially needed, they argue, because of the Supreme Court’s decision in 2013 to effectively invalidate section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. That decision paved the way for more restrictive voting laws in many states.
“By making next year’s election a national holiday, President Obama would signal a strong national commitment to voting and help serve as a counter-balance to the 2013 Supreme Court decision that gutted the historic Voting Rights Act,” the groups said in a prepared statement, according to AlterNet.
Currently, there is at least one bill in the U.S. Senate to make Election Day a legal public holiday. The Democracy Day Act of 2015 was proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who has argued that the designation could increase what has been dismally low turnout in U.S. elections.
There have been no actions on Sanders’ bill since it was introduced in August.
BY EMILY ATKIN