Shaking up the Elections: Saturday Night’s Alright for Voting

Why did Indiana and other states establish township government back in the 1850s? Because of the farming economy and the need for people to travel by horse and buggy to conduct government business. Why are elections held on Tuesday? Same reason.

The Indiana Chamber and its partners have repeatedly pointed out over the last six-plus years that township government needs to go — for a variety of reasons. Check some of them out at MySmartGov. Now, election reform advocates are saying Tuesday votes are a relic and at least one of the reasons the U.S. ranks a staggering 140th globally in voter participation.

Here’s part of a recent Governing article on making the switch to Saturday elections. It, combined with vote centers, might make sense. Thoughts?

“Voting on Tuesday is the No. 1 remaining burden to voter participation,” says Jacob Soboroff, executive director of Why Tuesday?, a national nonpartisan group that advocates weekend voting. “Moving Election Day to the weekend is the single biggest thing we can do in our country to get more people involved in the political process.”

When Congress was trying to establish a national Election Day in 1845, the biggest concern was accommodating an agrarian society. Farmers needed a day to travel to the county seat, a day to vote and a day to return home. Ruling out days of worship left Tuesday and Wednesday, but Wednesday was typically market day. So, Tuesday it was.

Few Americans still rely on a horse and buggy to get to the voting booth. In today’s urban society, reform advocates say, Tuesday voting is more a hassle than a convenience. In recent years, expanded early voting periods and no-excuse-needed absentee voting in many states have made it easier to cast a ballot without missing work. But what’s really needed, these reformers argue, is a full-out shift to Saturday voting.

Voters in one jurisdiction will get to experiment with weekend voting next year. Last month, San Francisco residents overwhelmingly approved a measure to open polls for the November 2011 election on Tuesday and the previous Saturday. “We’re trying to engage more people in the democratic process,” says Alex Tourk, a local political affairs consultant who spearheaded the effort. “It’s not rocket science to hold an election on a day when most people aren’t working.”

Still, there are complications. Since the San Francisco pilot project essentially establishes two full election days, there’s an added cost to the city. Tourk must cover those expenditures by raising funds from private sources — but establishing what those costs are will be tricky.

Saturday voting won’t be the norm anytime soon. But San Francisco’s experiment could provide some interesting insights into what happens when people don’t have to choose between voting and putting in a full day at the office. Weekend voting may ultimately not change anything, but given America’s bottom-of-the-barrel turnout rates, it sure can’t hurt.