Legislator’s resolution calls for Election Day to be a holiday

By: Joshua Gordon | C&G Newspapers | Published November 18, 2015

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LANSING — During the Nov. 3 election that included races for many city, village and township decision-makers’ seats in Oakland and Macomb counties, only about 20 percent of registered voters cast their ballots across both counties, according to the respective county clerks’ offices.

Hoping to get a better turnout at the polls on election days, state Rep. Robert Wittenberg, D-Oak Park, introduced a resolution Nov. 3 that asks the U.S. Congress to make Election Day a national holiday. Such a move would give voters the day off from work and school.

“I am trying to encourage people and get more people out to the polls,” Wittenberg said. “According to reports, the 2014 general election had the lowest turnout in 72 years. We have holidays that commemorate things from the past, and that is great, but voting and Election Day have a huge impact on our future, so that is important. A lot of people work multiple jobs and it is tough to get to the polls, so we want to make it easier.”

In Oakland County, the local elections have shown the lowest participation. This year, 21.13 percent of voters cast their votes in November, while in November 2013, only 18.89 percent made their voices heard.

However, elections that had wider-reaching races, such as county, state or presidential races, experienced better turnout. In November 2014, nearly 48 percent of registered voters cast ballots, and in November 2012, a presidential election year, more than 71 percent of voters voted.

Macomb County elections showed similar trends, with about 16 percent of voters casting ballots this year, just more than 43 percent casting ballots in the November 2014 election, and 66.1 percent casting ballots in the November 2012 election.

“Specifically in our local elections, voting shapes our future,” Wittenberg said. “It impacts your taxes, your local school district and your everyday life. It is really important to have a say in that, and if (Election Day) is a holiday, people will realize the importance of it. From local commissioners to council to school board elections, all the way up to the president, everything has an impact on the future, and we want people to be engaged in that process.”

Macomb County Clerk Carmella Sabaugh, a Democrat, said that in her 23 years as clerk, she has heard chatter about making Election Day a holiday. By combining elections in recent years, Sabaugh said, the hope was to increase voter turnout, but that hasn’t always been the case.

In looking at a way to get more people to the polls, Sabaugh said a holiday may be the way to go.

“I think it is so important for people to have the opportunity to go to the polls and celebrate our freedoms,” she said. “I lived in Warren for a long time and was the clerk there, and city elections were like a non-election, as not many people voted. Whatever we can do to increase voter participation in order to have a better form of government, and I think the time has come to have an Election Day holiday.”

State Rep. Brad Jacobsen — a Republican representing Addison, Brandon, part of Oakland, Orion and Oxford townships in District 46 — agreed that it is disappointing when voters don’t turn up at the polls or don’t cast an absentee ballot, but he has reservations about whether a national holiday is the route to go to bring up the participation percentage.

“I understand the thought and the theory behind having a designated day, but I have some doubts if it would have the desired effect of getting more people out to the polls,” Jacobsen said. “It is very discouraging and disappointing how many people get out and vote, and how many are registered, but I’m not sure this is the way to go about it. It may just turn into a day off where furniture companies have another reason to have a sale.”

When looking at the big picture, Jacobsen said, it is hard to determine how another national holiday would affect productivity in the workforce, as well as how many businesses actually would close, as certain holidays only see state and municipal entities shut down.

Still, Jacobsen said he is on board for trying to figure out a way to get more voters to turn up, but it may be by going through another option.

“I think we need to look at changing and making it easier to do absentee voting, as to me that makes more sense than a holiday,” he said. “If you can get your ballot in advance and sit down and study it and look over it for a couple of days or whatever time frame, that will help. It’s not that Rep. Wittenberg doesn’t have the right idea, so I look forward to having discussions with him and seeing what we might come up with.”

Similarly, Wittenberg — who represents Berkley, Ferndale, Hazel Park, Huntington Woods, Oak Park, Pleasant Ridge and Royal Oak Township in the 27th District — said improving the absentee ballot process is a concern of his, as well as shortening the registration window.

“In Michigan, you have to register nearly 30 days prior to an election, and after that the window closes,” Wittenberg said. “If we can shorten that to 10 days for all elections, it would make it easier for people to get to the polls when they want to vote.”

With the proposal having just been submitted, Wittenberg said it has been referred to the Government Operations Committee. If brought up for a hearing there, it could be passed to the House of Representatives floor. No hearing date had been assigned for it as of Nov. 13.

“We need to stress how important voting is and how it impacts each and every person directly,” Wittenberg said. “We need to do whatever we can to get more people engaged and get people access to vote. A holiday highlights the importance and brings more awareness.”