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We Should Move MLK Day to Election Day

By making it easier to vote, the change would align with the principles King gave his life for.

Voting is a “sacred right,” Martin Luther King, Jr., once said. And its denial in the U.S. has been “a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our demo­cratic tradi­tion.” A man of words and action, Dr. King went on to lead the march in Selma, a key part of the pres­sure campaign that persuaded Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. With a mission to hold the nation account­able to its demo­cratic pledge, Dr. King became a key player in the fight to increase access to the ballot. Some of the prob­lems with voting in Amer­ica have subsided — or evolved — since his time. But one in partic­u­lar has gotten worse: our low voter turnout.

The 61.5 percent turnout rate in the historic 2008 elec­tion, high by recent stand­ards, still lagged behind the level in three consec­ut­ive pres­id­en­tial elec­tions during the 1960s. Nearly 19 million registered voters stayed home in 2016, a figure that exceeds the entire popu­la­tion of about 75 percent of the world’s coun­tries. This substan­tial minor­ity serves as a silent rebuke to the Amer­ican demo­cratic ideal.

Dr. King’s birth­day should be more than a mere symbol. It should be an occa­sion for the coun­try to move beyond uplift­ing words toward civic-minded action. So, with Amer­ica’s low voter turnout on my mind, I put forth an idea: Let’s observe Dr. King’s birth­day not in Janu­ary, but on Elec­tion Day in Novem­ber.

Doing so would not be without contro­versy. The move could upend decades of tire­less work by advoc­ates, includ­ing Dr. King’s widow, to get Congress to estab­lish the holi­day in the first place. Our obser­va­tion of the holi­day would no longer accom­pany his Janu­ary birth­day, and the change would elim­in­ate a three-day week­end. But with the change, the coun­try could reap bene­fits that not only outweigh these losses, but also align with the prin­ciples Dr. King dedic­ated his life to.

Observing Dr. King’s birth­day on Elec­tion Day would mean that more Amer­ic­ans have the day off, making voting more conveni­ent for many of the 2.7 million who registered but failed to vote in 2016 due to schedul­ing prob­lems. Voting would be spread out more evenly across Elec­tion Day, decreas­ing lines and wait time by dampen­ing the surge at peak hours. And after cast­ing their own ballots, Amer­ic­ans could show their commit­ment to demo­cracy and their communit­ies by using the rest of day to help the elderly and disabled get to the polls, serve as poll work­ers, or babysit for neigh­bors so that parents with young kids can vote in person. It was Coretta Scott King who said that Martin Luther King, Jr., Day should be treated as “a day on” devoted to service. What better way to serve and honor the dream than by encour­aging millions of Amer­ic­ans to exer­cise their sacred right to vote?

Even those who fight for voting rights disagree about making voting day a holi­day. Expand­ing early voting, same-day regis­tra­tion, and making other key reforms (many of which are in a major legis­lat­ive pack­age intro­duced by House Demo­crats this month) would surely super­charge our elec­tions. Making Elec­tion Day a holi­day would only increase that like­li­hood.

An Elec­tion Day holi­day isn’t a novel idea: Pres­id­ent John F. Kennedy’s Commis­sion on Regis­tra­tion and Voting Parti­cip­a­tion made the recom­mend­a­tion half a century ago. In 1973, Sen. Ted Kennedy proposed a trial run during the 1974 midterm elec­tions so lawmakers could eval­u­ate its impact on voter turnout. In 1981, a bill contain­ing a similar comprom­ise idea was intro­duced in Congress. Each time, naysay­ers objec­ted. Like many of those who voted against a federal holi­day for Dr. King, oppon­ents claimed that the nation’s economy could ill afford to even exper­i­ment with a day off due to the poten­tial finan­cial impact.

But celeb­rat­ing the holi­days jointly on the Tues­day after the first Monday in Novem­ber would alle­vi­ate those concerns. It would not conflict with reli­gious observ­ances. And it should have little net finan­cial impact. Observing Dr. King’s birth­day in Novem­ber would not add an extra holi­day to the calen­dar, it would just shift the exist­ing one forward.

Oppon­ents might also argue that moving the day we observe Dr. King’s birth­day would not have the desired impact, since most employ­ers have no oblig­a­tion to offer paid time off for federal holi­days. It’s true that Congress’ power to declare holi­days applies to federal govern­ment employ­ees only, so it is not auto­matic that every­one will get leave. But 43 percent of employ­ers currently offer a paid day off for Dr. King’s birth­day, some­thing we could reas­on­ably assume they would continue to do. Even if that figure dropped, it would still be greater than the few employ­ers who currently offer paid time off on Elec­tion Day.

To be sure, observing Dr. King’s birth­day on Elec­tion Day will not fix all of Amer­ica’s turnout prob­lems. Voter apathy cannot be solved by time off. Short of imple­ment­ing the Australian model of compuls­ory voting, however, it is not clear how we might reach the 7.5 million people who declined to vote because they either did not like candid­ates or campaign issues, or were simply not inter­ested. Sen. Robert Byrd opposed an elec­tion day holi­day because some might take Monday off to create a four-day week­end. But, as Sen. Howard Cannon urged, even if voters opt to not “express their opin­ions at the polls,” the govern­ment is not absolved of its “respons­ib­il­ity . . . to provide our citizens with the oppor­tun­ity to express these opin­ions.”

Amer­ica can and should make it easier for people who want to vote to cast their ballots. And while the Elec­tion Day holi­day would be an exper­i­ment, it’s one that along with other pro-voter policies could make voting less of a burden and more of a celeb­ra­tion. Strength­en­ing our demo­cracy does not call for an either-or strategy, but rather an all-of-the-above approach. Merging Dr. King’s birth­day with Elec­tion Day — and honor­ing the hero on a day of unity and civic parti­cip­a­tion — is a comprom­ise that should be part of that effort.

The views and opin­ions expressed in this piece reflect the author’s view and not those of any organ­iz­a­tion with which he is affil­i­ated.

(Image: Bettmann)