If the French election that installed Emmanuel Macron as president caught you by surprise, it could be because France cast its votes on Sunday.
That’s right. In one of the more civilized gestures a democracy can make, the French vote on the weekends: Sunday, if you’re in-country, Saturday if you’re outside it. French expats around the world cast their ballots at local French embassies, international schools and, in Mumbai, at a polling station that served café et croissants, bien sur. (Of course.)
In fact, the entire French election process is short and relatively fuss-free. An initial round of voting winnowed the field last month, with a final vote just two weeks later. By law, campaigns end at midnight on the Friday before the election, starting a media blackout on potentially vote-swaying news that lasts until polls close on Sunday, ensuring two blissful days of quiet voter contemplation. Ten days later, the new president takes office.
While many of those elements are worth considering, the one that leaps to the fore is weekend voting. Despite a voter turnout that lags most of the world’s democracies, the United States has stubbornly, inexplicably, clung to its anachronistic tradition of voting on a Tuesday in, of all months, November. The practice appears to be a holdover from the mid-19th century, when polling places could be a day’s travel and Sunday travel was often problematic, making Tuesday an appealing choice. Why November? The harvest was in.
But these aren’t agrarian times. Americans are working more hours than ever, many with unpredictable schedules, and there seems little reason to demand that an election be held during the busy work and school week. Some states, Minnesota among them, require employers to give time off, but others do not, and laws vary wildly. Penalties are light and seldom pursued. Under such circumstances, it is understandable that workers might be unwilling to make such a demand.
The Weekend Voting Act has been kicking around Congress since 2009 and was last reintroduced in 2015, but has never gained much traction. Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar from Minnesota, is the co-founder of Why Tuesday?, a group dedicated to the weekend switch. He points to the French election as a real-world example of the impact weekend voting can have. Their 74 percent turnout “was low for them, but it would be revolutionary for us,” he told an editorial writer on Monday. Ornstein notes that weekend voting is not the only factor. Registration there is beyond simple: French citizens are automatically registered when they turn 18 or are naturalized. But, he said, the convenience of weekend voting is unassailable.
So why no change? In the absence of scandal, Ornstein said, inertia takes over. But he said there also may be a partisan factor. Enhanced voter turnout is not universally valued. Republicans nationally have shown a marked preference for voter suppression tactics, including restrictive voter ID laws, shorter polling hours, fewer polling places and opposition to same-day registration.
Voting is by its nature a partisan act. Voting rights should never be. It’s time to stop putting up hurdles for working Americans who simply want to exercise the most fundamental right of a democracy.