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.