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To Boost Turnout, Make Election Day a Celebration

Imagine picnics and parades. Imagine extended families voting together before the baked bean supper or block party.

They don't want you to vote. If they did, we wouldn't vote on a Tuesday. In November.


—Chris Rock

Why do Americans vote on Tuesday? So that, uh, our overnight, horse-and-buggy trips to the polls don't interfere with the Sabbath. Established by federal law in 1845, Election Day Tuesday is a relic of the days of slavery and small pox.

An outdated custom—so what? Here's what: It contributes heavily to Americans' low voting turnout. Voter participation is a measure of a democracy's health; the United States, among the world's worst in this category, is seriously sick.

Low turnout is a complex problem with multiple causes (a few biggies: prevailing cynicism, the decline of social capital, and the corporate-sponsored crappiness of both parties), but one simple change could have a profound effect.

The number one reason that people who are registered but fail to vote give for not participating is that they were too busy with work or school on election day. This excuse is especially prevalent among young people. So why not change election day from a Tuesday to weekend or holiday? Research has shown that turnout is higher in countries that vote during weekends.

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Why Tuesday?, a nonpartisan nonprofit, has pushed this issue onto the agenda in DC, where two reps have introduced the Weekend Voting Act. It's an idea whose time came 100 years ago.

But ideally, Election Day wouldn't be just a day off; it would be a celebration. Donald P. Green, co-author of what many consider the turnout bible, says reformers tend to overemphasize barriers to voting while overlooking incentives, and one excellent way to get people to the polls, his research shows, is to...throw a party.

Seriously? Seriously.

For municipal elections in Hooksett, New Hampshire, Green and two other researchers organized a party on the lawn of the junior high, a polling place. Turnout went up, and it did again when they conducted the same experiment in New Haven, CT. "Controlling for past turnout rates, the researches concluded that a simple poll party in a precinct where 50 percent of voters typically turnout would increase turnout by 6.5 percent—a highly significant result."

No one is suggesting that cotton-candy machines will solve a problem that has vexed reformers for decades. The idea is to create a civic tradition, a culture of voting. Imagine picnics and parades. Imagine extended families going to the polls together before the baked bean supper, or block party. Imagine a festive occasion of patriotism (or, if you prefer, civic pride) like Election Day in Puerto Rico, where people celebrate their way to the polls in big numbers.

This post is part of the Take Back Tuesday campaign to make Voting Day a national holiday. Sign up or encourage your company to join in at takebacktuesday.good.is.

Illustration by Jessica De Jesus

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