IT'S ONLY January, yet it's nearly impossible to avoid the media's coverage of the Republican Party primaries and the upcoming presidential election. In the midst of this onslaught of information and endless punditry, one could easily conclude that interest in politics is at an all-time high. However, the unfortunate reality is that only six out of 10 eligible voters will make it to the polling places this November.
The bad news is that much of this political malaise is due to an outdated federal law that established Election Day as the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. The good news is that in order to increase voter turnout and improve the health of America's democracy, we can move our Election Day to the weekend, thereby giving more Americans the opportunity to vote.
To understand why we vote on Tuesdays, it's important to examine the historical context in which this decision was made. The Tuesday date is not established in the Constitution but rather by an 1845 federal law. Congress needed to pick a date, and our pre-Civil War, agrarian society provided incentives to select that Tuesday as Election Day. In 1845, the county seats served as the only places for voting, and residents, many of whom lived on farms far removed from county seats, needed time to travel.
Congress did not choose Monday for elections since it would mean traveling on Sunday, a day reserved for church. Furthermore, by requiring that Election Day be the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, Congress ensured that elections could not conflict with All Saints Day, a Holy Day of Obligation in the Roman Catholic Church.
While a Tuesday Election Day has become a part of America's political culture, our society has undergone significant transformations since 1845 that warrant moving Election Day to the weekend.
First, agriculture no longer serves as the basis of our society. People have been moving from farms to cities, and technology has advanced the means of transportation dramatically. Polling places are now spread across the county, and residents can drive, if not walk, to their voting precincts. Therefore, sociological and technological changes have rendered the mid-week Election Day pointless.
Second, while there are numerous factors that go into a person's decision to vote, one key consideration is simply the busyness and stress of life, which has only been exacerbated by the Great Recession of 2008. Voting is the single most important civic obligation that citizens have, but voting during the week creates unnecessary burdens. When adults are unemployed or underemployed, they spend their days searching for full-time employment, scrambling between several part-time jobs while also caring for their children or older relatives. Is it any wonder, then, that voting rates either have remained stagnant or have decreased after Congress made voter registration easier in the 1990s?
Moving Election Day to the weekend also would increase voter participation among 18- to 24-year-olds, the cohort with the lowest voting rate. While 2008 was considered the year of the young voter, only 51 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the presidential election, a percentage not seen since 1972. However, when young people, especially those in college, are asked why they do not vote, they consistently cite the impediments associated with midweek voting.
Many college students remain registered in their hometowns, not their college residences. This means that in order to vote, students typically must travel home midweek and miss class, or remember to request an absentee ballot form months before Election Day and then complete and submit it on time.
In sum, it's difficult to defend a midweek Election Day in 2012 when the reasons for its purpose have disappeared and we realize the weighty barriers that it places on a significant number of people.
Fortunately, U.S. Rep. Steve Israel, D–N.Y., and U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, D–Wis., have introduced the Weekend Voting Act, which moves the general election to the first full weekend in November. I strongly urge all citizens to contact their federal representative and senators to urge the passage of this important legislation.