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Thursday, June 13, 2024

DC (and the US) Should Change Election Day

The District of Columbia has made it far more convenient for people to vote.  All registered voters receive mailed ballots with postage paid return envelopes.  There are drop boxes and a week of early voting. On Election Day there is same-day registration and voting. One would think that these convenient opportunities would result in dramatically increased voting rates, but that is not the case.

Mail balloting has yet to dominate our local political culture and there are many voters (particularly the elderly) who are still wedded to voting on Election Day. In my opinion, Election Day should be moved from Tuesday to a weekend for purposes of convenience and to increase turnout.

Congress passed a law in 1845 that designated the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November as Election Day for federal elections.   That date was chosen because of worship, weather and harvest.  During that time the United States was mostly an agrarian society.  In order to vote, farmers had to travel to the election sites by horse.  So, Tuesday was chosen because they could worship on Sunday, travel on Monday, vote on Tuesday and be back on the farm by Wednesday.  Early November was chosen for Election Day because it would not interfere with the planting season and would be after the harvest and before winter.

Our society has radically changed and the traditional Election Day is an agrarian anachronism that should be changed. Also, weekday elections make the United States an outlier among advanced democracies. If the federal government will not change it, then DC should change the day of its municipal elections.

Voting on Tuesday is not convenient for most working people. Voting before going to work is problematic. Most people cannot leave their jobs to vote. So, most of the employed vote after work in the evenings and that can result in long lines at the polls. Also, inclement weather can decrease turnout on Election Day.

I propose that Election Day be moved to a weekend and that there be voting on Saturday and Sunday. Not only would Election Days be convenient for more people but it would present opportunities for more volunteers and organizations to be involved in get-out-the-vote activities.  The floodgates would open with creative and innovative strategies to increase turnout.

I propose that to introduce those under the age of 18 to the election process, voting machines could be made available for them to participate in mock elections using the same ballots provided for the adults. Imagine voting becoming a family affair when students accompany their relatives to the polls to vote. Maybe the high school students could be given community service hours for participating.

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What should be obvious and clear to DC election observers and analysts is that making the voting process more convenient is not resulting in significant increases in turnout. There are four political parties officially recognized by the DC Board of Elections: Democratic, Libertarian, Statehood Green and Republican. The leaders of these parties could and should be in the forefront of advocating election reforms. Unfortunately, they are not.

There are and have been many voices in the political chorus of decrying the low voting turnouts in east-of-the-river neighborhoods. Yet, no coherent, cohesive strategy or plan has been developed to change the situation.

But there are stirrings for change.

Last October 25th in the public housing Highland Addition of Ward 8, there was a special meeting for chronic nonvoters. The Board of Elections voting roster was used to identify those residents who registered but never voted. The nonprofit DC Appleseed partnered with the Anacostia Coordinating Council, Anacostia Parks and Community Collaborative, Right Directions and Families First DC  to convene the luncheon discussion with the nonvoters. Basically, those residents said that they were not being reached out to by candidates or organizations.

Usually political campaigns focus on the “super voters.” The chronic nonvoters are generally ignored and eventually are purged from the voting rolls. Until community organizations and the political parties make a sincere effort to reach out to them, the rates of voting participation east of the river will never significantly increase.

Long-time Ward 8 community activist Philip Pannell can be contacted at philippannell@comcast.net. Pannell is the executive director of the Anacostia Coordinating Council. Help make Wards 7 and 8 great! Become a member of the Anacostia Coordinating Council. Visit http://www.anacostiacc.org/join-us.html.

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