Should voters get the day off on Election Day?

Employees in most states don't get paid time off on Election Day. Long lines might make for a stressful day even for those who do.

Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press/AP
Voters stand in line waiting to cast ballots at the Hamilton County Election Commission Thursday, Nov. 3, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

If you’re reading this as you wait in a long line to vote, hang in there.

Early voters in several states faced long waits at polling sites over the weekend, as the tumult of this year’s election provoked unprecedented rates of voter registration and turnout. And on Election Day morning, residents in cities up and down the East Coast were facing the same test to their patience.

It’s not the first time waits have been an issue on Election Day. But with state officials concerned about the specter of voter intimidation and voter advocates condemning the slow trickle of new state laws that they say suppress the vote, perennial calls for the federal government to make it easier to cast a ballot may have special resonance.

Generally, the United States has among the lowest voter turnout rates of wealthy countries: it ranks 31 out of the 35 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In 2012, 53.6 percent of the public turned out, according to the Pew Research Center. Compare that to Belgium (87.2 percent) or Turkey (84.3 percent), where voting is mandatory for citizens.

In the US, the problem seems to be that few eligible voters take the time to register.

"Only about 65% of the U.S. voting-age population (and 71% of the voting-age citizenry) was registered in 2012, according to the Census Bureau, compared with 91% in Canada and the UK, 96% in Sweden and nearly 99% in Japan," Pew wrote in August. Once Americans register, they’re actually more likely to cast a ballot than citizens of most other countries.

Give those voters credit for sticking it out. More than 30 states have laws on the books requiring employers to give their workers time off so they can go vote. But they could lose pay if they do. Several states, like Alabama, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin, don’t mandate that employers pay for those hours off. And in nearly all of the states that require paid leave, there’s a cap on the number of hours an employee can be gone (generally two or three), which might be a pretty narrow time window if you’re standing in a half-mile line.

There’s no shortage of solutions being offered to either the problem of long lines or low voter turnout. A bipartisan commission tasked with investigating the problem of long Election-Day lines in 2012 suggested several ways they could better prepare for the election in advance, concluding that "as a general rule, no voter should have to wait more than half an hour in order to have an opportunity to vote."

Some want voting to be compulsory, or for Election Day to be declared a federal holiday. Legislative proposals for the latter are floating around in the House and in the Senate. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont, who filed such a bill in 2015, is perhaps the most prominent backer of that idea, called it an indication of "a national commitment to create a vibrant democracy." Others suggest something a little more honky-tonk: an Election Day festival, possibly extended over an entire weekend, that takes its inspiration from the carnival-like atmosphere that once surrounded elections in the US.

"By holding the election over several days, we increase the probability that individuals will be available to vote," wrote University of the Pacific political scientist Dari Sylvester Tran in The New York Times on Monday. "Since a majority of employed Americans do not work on weekend days, we remove one of the most significant hurdles to voting on a Tuesday. A festival-like setting could reduce the need for dozens and dozens of local polling places."

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