This Tuesday, some of us got to decide whether who we wanted to hire and fire for our local leaders. In Pennsylvania's primary Election Day this year, most of us got to vote for at least some members of the local school board and municipal government (township supervisor, borough council, mayor and other posts).
For many local elections in Pennsylvania, the story is largely told with the spring election, rather than the fall election. Individual towns lean so heavily to one party that the winner in the dominant party's primary often win by a large margin in the general election.
Local elections make an impact on garbage pickup, local schools and oversight of local residential and business development. With local responsibility, municipal and school board leaders have more day-to-day effect on our lives than the president of the United States or the governor of Pennsylvania. Yet when it comes to voting, the turnout is abyssmal for these "off-year elections."
Actually, participation levels are pretty lousy in the United States for all our elections. It's worse than what sometimes gets reported in the news because we often hear that a certain percentage of registered voters went to the polls, not what percentage of the citizenry.
One solution is the creation of a holiday for Election Day. In Germany, national elections must take place on Sundays or national holidays.
Some people have made proposals for such a change in the United States. Since the Constitution requires Election Day to be held on the Tuesday that falls between Nov. 2 and 8 each year, we could either add a holiday, eliminate one to keep the number of holidays the same, or move the observation of a holiday. The most obvious solution is cutting Columbus Day, which would relieve some of the tension and cultural baggage associated with the explorer's unsavory deeds. Then Election Day becomes a holiday, and more people are able to get to the polls.
A less popular suggestion is to move Veterans Day (originally Armistice Day) from its Nov. 11 celebration, which was picked to remember the end of World War I (well, "The Great War," at the time). I grimace at this suggestion because our leaders might be less likely to hold public celebrations of veterans if they were consumed with the election on the same day. Veterans Day already suffers enough when people conflate it with Memorial Day, and I would prefer to keep it where it is. Finally, simply adding a holiday for Election Day causes problems for public and private sector managers who will have to find a way to pay for a day of lost productivity, and for many businesses, that simply means they will not participate.
Fewer options are available for primary elections. Do we want to send Pennsylvania to the polls in February on President's Day? That would leave a long time between the primary and general election. Voting on Memorial Day would be even worse than holding general elections on Veterans Day: More people plan to get away for Memorial Day, so voting then would drop, not rise.
Are you starting to see why creating a holiday for a Spring Primary is so difficult? I can't see us adding a holiday specifically for it, even if it would help. If we made a drastic change, we could move the primary to Labor Day for off-year elections. September voting isn't as crazy as it sounds at first -- remember, Sept. 11, 2001, was supposed to be an Election Day in New York.
With all of these problems, perhaps a holiday isn't the solution for primaries. (But let's push for the Columbus Day trade for the general election, ok?) To really make a dent in the lack of participating in the primary, we need new options. We could explore options for early voting or voting remotely -- by phone, Internet or mail.
It's time that Pennsylvania at least takes a look at these options for the future. None are ready for our state to roll out immediately, but they are worth a look.