Turning election day into a holiday to honor John Kennedy

THERE'S no shortage of holidays in Massachusetts. And yet another one may be on the way. Those pushing for a suitable holiday for former President John F. Kennedy are joining forces with those concerned about the low voter turnout across the state to urge that election day be made a state holiday in his honor. But Senate and House leaders, whose strong support is needed, appear to have little enthusiasm for the idea.

A bill to provide such a holiday, even one honoring a native son, is bound to face stiff opposition from the business community, which is not without influence on Beacon Hill. Much could depend on whether it would be a full holiday, or partial one with limited store, factory, and office closings, or one restricted to schools and government offices.

Twenty-five states have some type of election-day holiday, or have primaries on Saturdays. Closings of commercial enterprises are often involved.

Business interests, particularly manufacturers, don't like midweek holidays. Their lobbying efforts have moved the annual observance of Washington's Birthday (now President's Day), Patriots Day, Memorial Day, and Columbus Day to Monday. Election day has long been fixed by federal law on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

Massachusetts would not be the first to designate its election day in honor of a President. Election day in Texas honors Lyndon B. Johnson. Alabama honors Thomas Jefferson, and Missouri pays tribute to Harry S. Truman.

Boosters of a Kennedy day hold it would be a constant reminder of the importance of every voter going to the polls. They note that Kennedy's 1960 victory margin was the equivalent of less than one vote in every US precinct.

Many Kennedy holiday activists would prefer May 29, the President's birthday. But past proposals have gone nowhere, partly because of concerned business interests. The fourth Monday in May is already observed as Memorial Day.

Supporters say that an election-day holiday for Kennedy is easier to sell, even though it would come in November, which already has Veterans Day (the 11th) and Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday). It would also be less than a month after Columbus Day, which is observed on the second Monday in October.

Critics of making election day a holiday warn that with a day off many people might leave town and not go to the polls. They say factors such as a shortage of attractive candidates and campaigns dominated more by name-calling than issues tend to turn voters off.

To help make the ballot more accessible to voters, Massachusetts lawmakers in recent years have extended polling hours and made it easier for those unable to get to the polls to vote in advance through absentee ballot.

Such efforts, however, may not have been that successful in getting more people to vote. An election-day holiday might help. State lawmakers might want to give it a try in 1988.

Such an idea was proposed in 1985 by a special bipartisan commission concerned with low voter participation in national elections. Thus far, however, there is nothing to suggest Congress has much interest in providing for such an experiment.

The panel, co-chaired by former Democratic national chairman Robert Strauss and former Republican Congressman Melvin Laird of Wisconsin, recommended that schools be open a half-day on the holiday. In that way families with children might be discouraged from going out of town instead of spending a few minutes going to the polls.

The current Bay State election-holiday proposal is expected to be endorsed by a special commission of state lawmakers and others, including Carolyn Kennedy, the late President's daughter. That panel was created last year to plan and provide for a suitable Kennedy memorial at the State House.

That commission, headed by state Sen. Joseph B. Walsh (D) of Boston and State Rep. John MacGovern (R) of Harvard, is also considering a variety of special educational programs in 1988, the 25th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination. Funds for these programs, along with those to finance a statue of the late President for the State House lawn, are to be raised through public contribution.

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