Election Day

by John Quiggin on May 4, 2005

If I’m not confused by timezone differences, today is election day in Britain and the outcome seems pretty much a foregone conclusion (I haven’t checked the omniscient betting markets, I must admit). So, I’ll look at a more trivial question. If the British government wants to increase voter turnout, why don’t they hold elections on Saturdays instead of Thursdays?

I looked into this question in the case of the US, and there’s a complicated historical explanation, but the central point that, at the time Tuesday was chosen as a polling day, the standard working week was six days, and Sunday was excluded for religious reasons. So it didn’t really matter which day was chosen.

But in an economy where, even with a 24-7 service sector, Saturday is a day off for most people, it seems like a much more convenient choice. For a bunch of reasons, I can’t see the US ever making a change like this[1]. But in Britain it would be easy, and presumably modestly beneficial to Labour, which could therefore push such a change through Parliament any time it wanted.

fn1. First, the US is very conservative in relation to traditions of this kind. Second, although it had an excellent record on this issue up to the 1960s, the Republican party now routinely opposes measures to increase voter turnout.

{ 41 comments }

1

nikolai 05.04.05 at 3:36 pm

The PM wouldn’t even have to put it before Parliament

“Why are elections held on Thursdays?

This is custom only; the Prime Minister could choose otherwise. the last time the general election was not on a Thursday was Tuesday 27 October 1931. Other elections not held on a Thursday (since polling day fixed to a single day in 1918):

Saturday 14 Dec 1918; Wednesday 15 Nov 1922; Wednesday 29 Oct 1924.”

http://www.parliament.uk/faq/elections_faq_page.cfm

2

Jonathan Edelstein 05.04.05 at 3:44 pm

If the cost factor can be overcome, why not hold the election on Saturday and Sunday? That should maximize the convenience of voting and eliminate the issue of religious obligation, given that no religion of which I’m aware holds both days sacred.

3

Chris 05.04.05 at 3:45 pm

It is still Wednesday here!

4

Andrew 05.04.05 at 3:51 pm

Voting on saturday is much better than on a work day. Australia has the best voting system in the world. The elections are all on saturday and voting is compulsory. Plus, the “instant runoff” system is used so a vote for nader isn’t a vote for Bush sort of thing (or a vote for UKIP isn’t a vote for labour if you go that way). Much better than this “first past the post” system seemly used every where else.

5

Michael H. 05.04.05 at 4:06 pm

And third, it in the U.S. Constitution: Federal elections are always on the first Tuesday following the First Monday in November. Changing the constitution for something like this would be only slightly easier than changing the bible.

6

John Quiggin 05.04.05 at 4:12 pm

Michael, I don’t think the date is fixed in the Constitution (see below). In looking for this, I noticed a proposal to make Election Day a national holiday, which might have marginally more chance

Section. 4.

Clause 1: The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.

7

Chris Brooke 05.04.05 at 4:21 pm

Oh, it’s terribly important that elections take place on weekdays. Lots of schools are used as polling stations, and the kids get the day off.

This week, Monday was the May Day Bank Holiday, and so children at schools that will be co-opted for the election will get two days off this week for political reasons, which is great.

8

Anders Widebrant 05.04.05 at 4:25 pm

From the little I have read on the subject, weekend voting has a clear effect on voter turnout. Probably larger than that of any campaign to raise voter awareness or rally the people around democracy or whatnot. Another good way to raise participation is to hold local and nationwide elections on the same day. Proportional representation rather than first-past-the-post is even better, but the ultimate voting booster is obviously to make voting mandatory.

9

Natalie Solent 05.04.05 at 5:21 pm

I heard somewhere that as workers were paid on Friday, Thursday was the day they were most likely to be sober.

10

Harry 05.04.05 at 5:23 pm

I’m with Chris Brooke on this. Not fair to kids, changing the day.

11

John Quiggin 05.04.05 at 5:28 pm

But if you have it on a Saturday, the school parents committees can raise money from raffles and cake stalls, as they do here in Australia

12

Anderson 05.04.05 at 5:36 pm

How do you make voting compulsory?

And do we really want people with no clue what’s going on to pick candidates at random, or on the basis of which name is funnier?

13

KCinDC 05.04.05 at 5:39 pm

There’s a difference between compulsory and more convenient. Not having a flexible work schedule doesn’t mean one is clueless. Usually it just means that one is poor.

14

JR 05.04.05 at 5:39 pm

Saturday voting would disenfranchise observant Jews.

15

Yusuf Smith 05.04.05 at 5:39 pm

Bear in mind that the polling booths are open way before working hours start, and stay open way after. So people can still work and vote.

I thought it would be a good idea to poll at the weekend, but my mum mentioned that the civil service need their day off as well. I suggested that they have a day off some time in the week after. As for kids having a day off, not all schools are in polling stations (the one round here is in a church, in my old constituency it was a youth activity centre), so not all kids get the day off. Not fair!

To the admins (off topic):

I’ve devised a way of allowing WordPress to remember commenters’ personal details or not to make it safer on public computers. Write me if you’re interested.

16

Wrong 05.04.05 at 5:44 pm

Well, civil servants do get the Queen’s birthday off, which is probably reasonable compensation for having to work on polling day.

17

Natalie Solent 05.04.05 at 5:52 pm

Looking at the little urban myth (workers sober Thursday) that I peddled earlier, I’ve suddenly started disbelieving it. No doubt Hogarthian amounts of drunkeness were present at old-time elections, but would enough of the electorate have been workers (i.e. paid weekly) for Thursday voting to be much of an advantage?

18

John Quiggin 05.04.05 at 6:46 pm

“Saturday voting would disenfranchise observant Jews”

This doesn’t seem to be a problem in Australia: there are a range of options for prepoll, absentee and postal voting.

19

mawado 05.04.05 at 6:58 pm

So, forgive a layman sticking his nose in.

But wouldn’t Weekend voting serve to further weaken lower-class polling. I mean, who works on the weekends? Services and little else. That little else is often by choice.

Short of manditory closings of businesses and manditory voting what keeps the servants from taking it in the shorts again?

I realize that Thursday voting is no better for the service working class, but it does manage to scrape a large percentage of the middle class into the same disadvantages.

For the dividend class, I don’t think it matters much what day is selected for voting.
Just an odd thought.
Mawado

20

aphrael 05.04.05 at 7:04 pm

Perhaps it’s clearly true in England that people can work and vote on the same day. It’s not clearly true in the US. It is not uncommon for polls to be open from 7AM-7PM (in California, it’s 7AM-8PM), and many urban workers have commutes of an hour or more. The conjunction of those two makes it effectively impossible for many people to vote in-precinct, especially if their precincts have long lines (lines of more than 1 hour long are not unheard of, sadly).

21

paul 05.04.05 at 8:09 pm

“Saturday voting would disenfranchise observant Jews.” Not if polling places are open (well) past sundown. Sabbath ends at sundown. Allow some time for religious observances, getting to the polling place, etc. For any elections on the winter side of the equinoxes, leaving polls open until 9 or 10 PM should take care of this in temperate latitudes.

22

Jim Miller 05.04.05 at 8:14 pm

The Republican party “routinely opposes measures to increase voter turnout”?

As in their actions after the Civil War? Or as in their actions in the 1960s when they provided the key Congressional support for the Voting Rights act and similar measures?

It is true that, in recent years, the Republicans have consistently been more willing than the Democrats to discourage illegal votes. I suppose one could say that objecting to illegal votes from felons, non-citizens, dead people, and entirely imaginary people, et cetera, does reduce turnout.

As for myself, I think that, in the long run, honest elections, with simple precautions such as photo ids (objected to by nearly all Democratic leaders), will increase turnout by increasing the faith that people (including Republicans, Professor Quiggin) have in the electoral system. It is simply a fact that places in the United Statess where electoral fraud is endemic also generally have low levels of voting.

I live in Washington state, where Democrat Christine Gregoire now sits in the governor’s office. On the basis of the evidence available there is simply no question but that her margin (129 votes) last November came from illegal votes. And there is a good chance that our junior senator, Maria Cantwell, also won office in 2000 only with the help of illegal votes.

So I have good reason for thinking that turnout is not our biggest problem.

23

vivian 05.04.05 at 8:19 pm

“But if you have it on a Saturday, the school parents committees can raise money from raffles and cake stalls, as they do here in Australia”

Oh don’t worry, they do that in America whether or not the school is closed (sometimes they only close off the part of the building that has the voting apparatus – lobby, gym, etc.). Sometimes they even get the cute kids to staff the bake sale (with adults too) for the sympathy effect.

24

Jim Miller 05.04.05 at 8:32 pm

Professor Quiggin may not be familiar with the history of the Republican party. Or so I would judge from his claim that “Second, the Republican party routinely opposes measures to increase voter turnout.” I would suggest that he particularly review the period after the Civil War and the big fights over the civil rights bills in the 1960s.

It is true, that, in recent years, Republicans have tended to oppose illegal votes more than Democrats have. (And it is hard not to conclude from these fights that the Democrats know that they benefit from vote fraud.)

But I do not think that reasonable checks on fraudulent voting, such as photo ids, discourage turnout in the long run. In fact, I would argue just the opposite, that clean elections encourage turnout. And it is a fact that those parts of the United States where vote fraud is endemic also tend to have low turnout.

I take this rather personally since I live in Washington state. On the basis of the available evidence, it is nearly certain that the Democrat who sits in the governor’s office, Christine Gregoire, got her narrow margin (129 votes) in last November’s election from fraudulent votes. (For instance, the counts are disputed, but roughly 1,000 felons — a group almost as Democratic in their voting habits as college professors — voted illegally.)

And so many failures have been found in the King County (Seattle and the nearby suburbs) elections office procedures that it now seems likely that our junior senator, Democrat Maria Cantwell, also won office in 2000 with the help of fraudulent votes.

For all our problems in this state, it is nearly certain that there were even more illegal votes in Wisconsin, perhaps enough to tip the state to Kerry. And for those who are not familiar with these states, I should add that both Washington and Wisconsin are generally thought to have cleaner elections than the average.

So, I don’t see increasing turnout as our biggest problem here in the United States.

25

Mill 05.04.05 at 8:36 pm

If Australia has the best voting system in the world, why have the Liberals been in power so long?

26

KCinDC 05.04.05 at 8:41 pm

Yes, Republicans are so concerned about illegal voting that they compile lists to make sure that even people who have names similar to those of felons are unable to vote. And they ensure that neighborhoods that might contain disproportionate numbers of felons receive inadequate numbers of voting machines, so that hours-long lines discourage people from voting, while those in less felon-rich neighborhoods are able to vote in minutes.

27

Tom Lynch 05.04.05 at 8:54 pm

Voting’s made compulsory in Australia by fining people who are registered to vote but do not go to a polling booth on election day. The fines are not too large (~$100 I think) and reasonable excuses are accepted.

From anderson:

“And do we really want people with no clue what’s going on to pick candidates at random, or on the basis of which name is funnier?”

If the working classes and the education-poor tend to be misinformed, is that problem really best solved by maintaining disincentives for them to vote? Of course not.

Compulsory voting doesn’t infringe on people’s rights or liberties in any meaningful way. There’s just an expectation that they will spend half an hour voting once every 3-4 years. This is an explicit conferral of rights in another sense, I think.

Remember that everyone is still free to make invalid or informal votes. No one is forced to choose between alternatives all of which are unacceptable to them.

I find it humourous that conservatives make so many aspects of life intrinsically mandatory (being “productive” is the most onerous) but immediately balk at compulsory voting and compulsory unionism. We wouldn’t want all those poor people getting enfranchised now, would we?

28

John Quiggin 05.04.05 at 9:46 pm

Jim, I’ve edited the footnote to reflect the valid point you made.

29

Tom T. 05.04.05 at 10:09 pm

Tom Lynch, I think it’s a bit of an overgeneralization to associate opposition to compulsory voting with conservatives. In the US, the topic really has no constitutency at all, left or right; it’s just never been part of our political discourse. Moreover, to the best of my knowledge, plenty of nations that one might ordinarily think of as liberal, such as Canada or the Scandinavian countries, do not have compulsory voting, whereas Singapore, a nation with a strong illiberal streak, does.

30

Matt 05.04.05 at 10:29 pm

Does anywhere in the US that uses schools for polling really close them for this? I’ve never seen it, despite living in a few different cities that used schools- they just rope off the area used. Polling stations are not so big- it would seem crazy to close the whole school for that, wouldn’t it? Especially if not every school was used. I’d be interested to hear if this actually happens. (It doesn’t happen in Idaho, or Albany NY, or Philadelphia.) The best place I’ve had as a polling station was the Pizza place down the street from my first apartment in Philadelphia. (They didn’t close that, either, making it seem even more dumb to close a whole school) Free Pizza and sodas avaliable for the poll workers and people going to vote. I’m sure it helped turn-out, at least in the in the neighborhood.

31

Andrew 05.04.05 at 10:29 pm

If Australia has the best voting system in the world, why have the Liberals been in power so long?
It has been that long, even though it seems so. Keating and Hawke were both Labor, and for 13 years that ended in 1996. Anyway my comment was on the voting system, not whom the people vote for.
I live in Washington, too, Jim. I wish they would have a new election, this time with different candidates. Neither Gregoire nor Rossi really seems competent to run a state with 6.5 million residents.

32

Tom T. 05.04.05 at 10:49 pm

Mill, in theory compulsory voting could favor the re-election of incumbents. Apathetic voters who would just as soon have stayed away may tend to pull the lever for the name that is most familiar to them. I have no personal knowledge as to whether there is any empirical support for this hypothesis in Australian politics. One commentator suggests that “There have been 21 Federal elections since Menzies took the Coalition to victory in 1949. The incumbent has won 17 of those elections, 18 if you consider Fraser to be the incumbent in 1975.” Again, though, I cannot venture to say how reliable that writer may be.

33

John Quiggin 05.05.05 at 12:37 am

“Apathetic voters who would just as soon have stayed away may tend to pull the lever for the name that is most familiar to them.”

Because Australia has a constituency system, like that of the UK, it’s usually a safe bet that apathetic voters (in fact, most voters) won’t recognise the names of any of the candidates. Most people vote for parties rather than individuals.

It used to be said that there was a “donkey vote” in which people numbered the candidates in the order they appeared on the ballot paper, but the advantage was eliminated by various reforms (randomisation and so on) and I haven’t heard this referred to for a while.

34

Tom Lynch 05.05.05 at 1:10 am

Tom T., fair point.

I suppose what I’m trying to get across is that objections raised to compulsory voting that are based on it being a perceived infringement on rights or liberties are not usually accompanied by corresponding objections to, say, enforced shopping hours, or seatbelt-wearing, or car registration, or mandatory education between the ages of six and sixteen …

There is usually an ulterior motive involving the perceived likelihood damage to a particular political party or cause. We’re having a similar debate now in Western Australia where the conservatives are opposing the introduction of one-vote-one-value electoral sizes (in W.A., country electorates have as little as a third the population of urban electorates but still have the same parliamentary representation). Since our conservative parties (the Liberals and Nationals) tend to fare better in rural areas there is an obvious pragmatic motive for this opposition, but it is never voiced (which irritates me greatly).

So yes, generalising about “conservatives” is probably unwarranted. I’m sure if compulsory voting was likely to damage the left wing of politics they’d campaign against it on equally silly grounds.

35

nick 05.05.05 at 2:43 am

John Q: here’s a weblog post from last year’s Australian elections on the donkey vote.

36

Jasper Milvain 05.05.05 at 3:58 am

The polling station here is open from 7am to 10pm, which ought to be long enough for most commuters.

37

Simstim 05.05.05 at 4:27 am

RE: “16. Well, civil servants do get the Queen’s birthday off, which is probably reasonable compensation for having to work on polling day.”

So what happens if the Queen’s birthday and polling day coincide?

38

Matt Daws 05.05.05 at 5:25 am

Yeah, I never understand this about voting being so hard. As Jasper says, polls are open here 7am to 10pm: even with a commute, surely no-one spends *that* long away from home (I have to walk about 30 seconds to get to the polling station this year: it’s always been less than 5 minutes away from my house). Maybe it’s different if you live in a rural community. But then you could always get a postal vote.

I do have some sympathy with the view that voting shouldn’t be *that* easy to do: it should be something you’re willing to spend 15 minutes on once every 4 years. Put that way, it’s not that hard a task (getting a passport probably causes me more pain). I’d be more in favour of something like P.R. to encourage people out with the argument that their vote will actually count.

39

Tom T. 05.05.05 at 7:14 am

Tom Lynch, JQ: Good points both.

40

john 05.05.05 at 10:44 am

In Maryland, we got off from school on election day.

41

Matt Brubeck 05.07.05 at 11:32 am

Alternately, why not make election day a national holiday?

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