The NCSL Blog

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By Wendy Underhill

There’s an old joke I’ve heard one time too many. It goes like this:

A politician is asked to respond to an election with turnout so low that only three voters showed up. The response: “Fine, as long as two of them vote for me.”

Well, that’s not been my experience. I’ve been talking to legislators about elections for several years, and the common theme is that they’d like to see greater civic engagement and higher participation in voting in particular. A few days ago, Senator Mitch Holmes (R-KS) told me that this fall he’ll be studying the idea of moving the dates for school board and local elections from the spring, when few voters show up, to the fall, when turnout tends to be higher because higher-profile races share the ballot. 

That’s only one measure that bears consideration.This month’s elections newsletter, The Canvass, addresses several election administration policies and whether they do, or do not, have a measurable impact on voter turnout.  Author Michael Hernandez looked at such things as same day voter registration, all-mail elections and voter ID.

Here are two other ideas that didn’t make the newsletter:

Moving voting to a Saturday so more people can participate without work-related conflicts.  Why Tuesday? is an advocacy group encouraging this idea. And, the federal General Accountability Office looked into this idea a couple of years ago, in Views on Implementing Federal Elections on a Weekend.

Some states make Election Day a holiday, sometimes giving state employees a couple of hours off to vote. Here’s what the U.S. Election Assistance Commission had to say about this idea in its report, Alternative Voting Methods: “When comparing the nine states that have an Election Day State holiday with all the other States that do not have Election Day holidays, as well as with the United States as a whole, there appears to be no relationship between an Election Day holiday and higher voter turnout.” 

The bottom line: turnout is based on a variety of factors, and only some of them are within the control of policy makers. Unfortunately the biggest one—weather—is not.

Wendy Underhill is program manager for elections at NCSL. Email Wendy.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.