Sandusky, Ohio, is ditching Columbus Day in favor of Election Day as a paid holiday in a decision that officials hope sends a message that the city values voting rights and diversity over a contentious holiday that many Americans already don’t celebrate.
“Ultimately, we knew that Columbus Day was a day that all of our citizens couldn’t necessarily be proud of celebrating. One of the things we’re doing is to begin to celebrate and build on the strength that is our diversity,” Eric Wobser, Sandusky’s city manager, told The Washington Post, adding that the city has passed anti-discrimination legislation. “Columbus Day was not a way for us to show that we value our diversity.”
Sandusky’s population of almost 25,000 is nearly 70 percent white, 23 percent black and 7 percent Hispanic. The city is more Democratic than the rest of Erie County, which voted for President Trump in 2016. But it swung to blue last year and helped reelect Sen. Sherrod Brown (D).
The move, first reported by the Sandusky Register, means that the city’s more than 200 government employees would receive paid time off the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Wobser said officials are hoping to convince local private companies to observe the holiday, as well. Nationwide, more than 300 companies pledged to give their employees paid time off on Election Day last year, despite the absence of federal regulation.
The decision comes amid a partisan debate over whether to make Election Day a federal holiday. A bill that would, among other things, expand voter access by making the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November a nationwide holiday was introduced last month. Democrats called it a broad effort to give power to Americans by making it easier for them to vote. Republicans, specifically Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), called it a “power grab” designed to skew the voting landscape in favor of Democrats.
Experts have said that the United States has a low voter turnout because elections are held on a work day, imposing a significant burden on students and hourly workers who are unable to take time off to vote.
In 2001, the National Commission on Federal Election Reform recommended making Election Day a federal holiday and merging it with Veterans Day. Fourteen states and Puerto Rico already consider Election Day a public holiday.
Dozens of cities and several states have also abandoned Columbus Day by rebranding the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day to honor the country’s inhabitants before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492.
In Sandusky, efforts to scrap Columbus Day began in 2015, when officials first brought up the possibility to local unions that represent the city’s police, fire and municipal employees. The negotiations didn’t go far because government employees did not want to give up a paid holiday, and understandably so, Wobser said.
Last year — as national stories about concerns over voter access and whose vote counts dominated the news cycle — officials proposed giving up Columbus Day and making Election Day a citywide holiday. Unions supported it, and the city’s seven-member commission passed the legislation last week.
“It’s a good way for us to get all of our employees to be able to get out and vote,” said Ed Dayringer, an engineering technician for the city and president of the local union that represents municipal employees. “This means something. It’s not like we just swapped a day for [any other] day. It’s actual voting day.”
Despite the national debate over making Election Day a federal holiday, Wobser said the intention of local officials is not political.
“The goal here is not necessarily to influence or assist one party or candidate or hurt one party or candidate. It’s just to make sure that people have access [to voting] … and that it will be easier for them to exercise their right to vote tomorrow than maybe it was yesterday,” Wobser said.
Wobser said he does not know of other cities that have swapped Columbus Day for Election Day. Sandusky officials have taken other steps to make voting easier for its citizens, such as providing free transportation on Election Day to the elderly and those who rely solely on public transportation, Wobser said.
Sandusky, a small but urban city in a rural county in northern Ohio, is home to Cedar Point, a 150-year-old amusement park that draws millions of visitors. Wobser said the park has created a $2 billion tourism industry that employs service workers, many of whom may not have access to transportation during Election Day.