Adam Bonica and Michael McFaul teach political science at Stanford University.
Voter turnout in the United States is among the lowest in the world. In the 2014 midterm elections, 33 percent of the voting-age population voted, setting the record for the lowest turnout in any national election of any advanced democracy (except Andorra) since 1945. There are many reasons so few Americans vote, but among them is that the United States is one of the few countries that holds elections on a workday. Finding time to vote during a workday imposes a significant burden that falls disproportionately on workers and students, who frequently cite scheduling conflicts with work or school as their reason for not voting.
According the Current Population Survey, the occupations that report the highest voter turnout rates in midterm elections are salaried professionals with flexible work schedules such as lawyers, educators and executives. Those with the lowest turnout are hourly paid workers in service jobs in restaurants and retail. Anyone who has worked a job such as this likely understands why. Only 1 in 5 students reported voting in the 2014 midterm elections.
This is a fundamentally unfair way to conduct elections. Income, profession or type of work should not determine voter turnout. All Americans should have an equal opportunity to vote on Election Day.
To date, our federal government has not followed the example of the many other countries that give citizens time off to vote. Some states have laws mandating time off to vote, but few workers know about them. The United States should change this, either by declaring Election Day a national holiday or by holding elections during the weekend. Columbus Day could become Election Day.
Until that happens, leaders of companies, nongovernmental organizations and other employers should take the initiative by giving their workers at least four hours of paid time off on Nov. 6. Professors at colleges and universities also should cancel classes on Election Day to give students time to vote. On this one day, instead of preparing for the future, students should be taking part in deciding it.
We understand that our proposal will impose costs on businesses. At a time of record earnings and strong economic growth, however, we are asking employers and teachers to consider our recommendation as an act of patriotism. To help all Americans participate in a most sacred American civic responsibility is an honorable act. In response to those companies that refuse to allow their workers time off to vote, consumers should mobilize to hold them to account for putting profit before the health of our democracy.
There is a consensus among political scientists that democracy is the best system of government and that democracies perform better when more people vote. Researchers in our field, however, have also shown how democracies can break down when citizens feel disenfranchised by the political processes, disconnected from their governments and disrespected by elites. In recent years, the practice of American democracy has exhibited some of these corrosive elements.
That’s why we need a shot in the arm to strengthen our democracy right now. Greater participation in elections can provide that democratic boost. Individuals might also feel better about our democracy if voting weren’t such a struggle.
The legitimacy of our democracy depends not just on people having equal rights to vote, but also on equal opportunities to vote, and on having representatives chosen by a representative set of citizens. The simple act of casting a ballot sends a message to politicians that you, and others like you, need to be taken seriously.
We do not have to wait for Washington to strengthen our democracy. Individual Americans can take action now — on Election Day — to improve our democratic system of government. Getting workers and students time off to vote is something we as citizens can do for one another. We are already witnessing a historic surge in civic engagement as record numbers of people have run for elected office, participated in mass protests, attended political rallies and registered to vote. Voter enthusiasm, among both parties, has reached record levels for the midterm elections. We owe it to each other to ensure that none of us is compelled to choose between voting and earning a paycheck, missing a lecture or picking up children on time from day care.
To the chief executives of Walmart, Amazon, Starbucks, Home Depot, Lowe’s, McDonald’s, Yum Brands, Target, Costco, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, we are calling on you to perform a civic duty, take the lead and announce your intention to give a few hours of paid leave to your employees on Election Day. If you move first, other employers and educators will follow your lead. Show your employees that you are just as committed to our democracy as you are to the success of your companies. They will thank you; they will feel more respect for you and your companies. So, too, will all Americans who believe in the democratic process.
And who knows, participating in “ A Day Off for Democracy ” might also be a terrific marketing campaign . As two consumers, we pledge to steer our business to those companies who help to strengthen our democracy and will urge millions more to do the same.