Ohio Dems want to increase turnout by making Election Day a holiday. Will it help?

By: - December 3, 2019 7:02 am

State Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney, D-Cleveland. File photo from Ohio House website.

A pair of Democratic state legislators are seeking to improve voter access and turnout by making Election Day a state holiday in Ohio.

Their proposal would only apply to general elections, held each November, and would result in government offices being closed that day. The idea is to give employees of public offices a paid day off work, providing ample opportunity to head to the polls.

State Rep. Erica Crawley
State Rep. Erica Crawley, D-Columbus. File photo from Ohio House website.

House Bill 398, sponsored by state Reps. Erica Crawley, D-Columbus, and Bride Rose Sweeney, D-Cleveland, was introduced Nov. 5 — coinciding with this year’s general election. The bill has 11 cosponsors, all of which are Democrats.

Would public schools and universities stay open on Election Day? That is up to their respective boards of education and boards of trustees, the bill suggests, though non-teaching employees would get the day off either way. 

If approved, this would make Ohio the 14th state to recognize Election Day as a holiday.

This action would not affect private industry, meaning retail outlets, restaurants and other such businesses could observe the holiday and give Ohio workers a day off only if they so choose. 

In an interview, Sweeney said some businesses in other holiday-enacting states have followed the government’s lead and closed on Election Day.

While the bill may not affect a majority of Ohio workers, its proponents believe observing Election Day as a holiday is an incremental step toward improving voter turnout. 

Ohio allows for several weeks of early voting, but the state still ranked 29th in voter turnout during the 2018 election cycle. Sweeney pointed out that a majority of Ohioans still choose to vote on Election Day, either as tradition or to have as much time to follow and decide upon the issues. She pointed to her own childhood family tradition of traveling to the polling place together.

Sweeney said recent history has shown there are reasons to be wary about the subject of voter access in Ohio. She pointed to the removal of “Golden Week,” which refers to the time period in which Ohioans used to be able to register to vote and cast an early ballot at the same time. (It was removed under Republican control in 2014. Democrats sued to have it reinstated, but the U.S. Supreme Court declined to do so.

Then there have been the efforts by Republican Secretaries of State Jon Husted and Frank LaRose to cancel the voter registrations of inactive voters. There have been numerous reports of these purges mistakenly including eligible voters

“What’s the harm in making it as easy as possible to let people do their civic duty?” Sweeney asked. 

The legislator said her goal will be to convince her colleagues that this can be a bipartisan way to promote voting access in the Buckeye State. She pointed to the fact that some red-leaning states, such as Kentucky, Indiana and West Virginia, are among those that already recognize Election Day as a holiday.

“This is not a Democratic win,” she said, “this is a democracy win.”

The bill was assigned to the House State and Local Government committee after being introduced on Nov. 5. There has been no further action taken.

Aiding a group that already votes? 

Government workers are already the highest voting bloc in terms of turnout, surveys from the U.S. Census Bureau show. In 2018, around 67 percent of government workers reported having voted, compared to 52 percent of the “civilian labor force.” This 67 percent mark is even higher than the turnout of those who reported being self-employed.

The presidential election in 2016 saw a similar disparity, with 74 percent of government workers casting ballots that year compared to 63 percent for civilian workers.

Busy work and life schedules continue to be contributing factors in recording voter turnout. Among non-voters in the 2016 presidential election, about 1-in-7 said the main reason was because they were too busy/had a conflicting schedule, the Census Bureau found. However, far greater people said they did not vote because they weren’t interested or did not like the candidates/issues on the ballot.

Election Day as holiday elsewhere 

Here are the observing states, listed in order of their voter turnout rank from 2018. (Kentucky is excluded since it only observes the holiday on presidential years.) 

Montana: 3rd
Michigan: 9th
Maryland: 19th
New Jersey: 22nd
Delaware: 26th
Illinois: 27th
Kentucky: 35th
Rhode Island: 36th
Indiana: 40th
New York: 42nd
Louisiana: 45th
West Virginia: 48th
Hawaii: 50th

Using the 2018 election cycle as an example, it does not appear that holiday-observing states record noticeably better turnout numbers. 

An analysis by the Capital Journal found that the states that did not observe Election Day as a holiday in 2018 had a better turnout (52.5 percent average) than the states that did (49.6 percent average).

Thirteen states observe Election Day as a paid holiday for state workers. Maryland may have been the first, doing so way back in 1882

Their approaches differ. The holiday is only recognized on presidential years in Kentucky, while Louisianans and Michiganders only do on even-numbered midterm years. Sweeney even noted the unique decision by officials of Sandusky, near Lake Erie, who replaced Columbus Day with Election Day as a holiday on the calendar. 

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Tyler Buchanan
Tyler Buchanan

Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism.