Should election day be a holiday? Might be on the California ballot soon!

For readers who have long memories of election reform debates in the United States, you will no doubt remember that the Carter-Ford (yes, Carter-Ford, not Carter-Baker!) election reform commission recommended that “Congress should enact legislation to hold presidential and congressional elections on a national holiday.” Furthermore, the Carter-Ford commission recommended “that in even-numbered years the Veterans Day national holiday be held on the Tuesday next after the first Monday in November and serve also as our Election Day” (see page 41). Those of you who remember this will also remember that this was one of the most controversial recommendations the Carter-Ford commission made, and that it was soundly opposed by many groups, especially veterans organizations.

Interestingly enough, there is some chance that California voters may be asked to decide whether state general election days should be made state holidays. On November 17, 2005, a proposed initiative statute entered circulation for signature collection (needing 373,816 signatures of registered voters to qualify) to enact this change. The official summary language of the initiativie (as written by the California Attorney General):

Provides that statewide general election days be state holidays. Further provides that public schools and community colleges shall close on statewide general election days, and that certain public employees, including public school and community college classified employees, may be entitled to a paid holiday on statewide general election days pursuant to collective bargaining agreements …

Given that this might soon be on the ballot in California, we’ll have to take a look back at the research literature to see what evidence exists that making election day a statewide holiday has positive effects on important outcome variables like turnout, polling place availability, and easier recruitment of polling place workers. I’m not aware of much in the research literature on this subject, and my examination of the research materials developed by the Carter-Ford commission shows no mention of research on what sorts of effects election-day holidays have on election administration or outcomes.

As an interesting parallel, on February 21, 2003, AB 1472 was introduced in the California state Assembly by Jackie Goldberg. As introduced, AB 1472, was summarized:

Under existing law, if local elections officials so request, the governing boards of public schools must allow schools to be used for polling places on election days.

This bill would require public schools to be closed on election days, and their facilities, including computer systems, to be
available to local elections officials. Schools would be open an extra day at the end of the school year to compensate for election day.

The bill would further provide that public school employees would not be paid for election days, and would instead be required to work an extra day at the end of the school year.

Because this bill requires public schools to be closed on election days and to be made available for use as polling places, it results in a state-mandated local program.

However, as I recall, AB 1472 encountered some significant opposition, due to the requirement that it would close schools on election day. That opposition came from a variety of sources, but I recall from discussions with legislative staff at that time that many parents were upset about having school closed during the work week, with questions raised about how they were supposed to take care of their kids on a work day.

AB 1472 was heavily amended, and when passed, the school-closing requirement was heavily watered down:

Under existing law, if local elections officials so request, the governing boards of public schools must allow schools to be used for polling places on election days.

This bill would authorize governing boards to exercise the options, in response to such a request, of: (1) keeping schools used for polling places in session but identifying to the elections official the specific areas of the school buildings not occupied by school activities that will be allowed for use as polling places, (2) designating the election day for staff training and development, or (3) closing the schools to students and nonclassified employees.

This bill would require that elections officials requesting the use of school buildings submit requests sufficiently far in advance to permit the governing board to determine whether or not to keep affected schools in session before school year calendars are prepared and distributed to parents.

I wonder if the same questions may arise about this potential ballot measure mandating that state general elections be state holidays, given the parallels here with the experience of the original AB 1472.