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Published: Thursday, 12/6/2001

Election holiday? Check `yes'

Only 51 percent of eligible Americans bothered to cast a ballot in last year's presidential election, a shamefully low number. We have previously argued that making the day we choose our president a national holiday would improve turnout. Now, according to a new survey, there is widespread public support.

A national poll released last week by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University found the election holiday the most popular of several proposals for increasing turnout. Sixty-two percent of those surveyed were in favor of the idea, which was an option endorsed earlier this year by a federal electoral commission led by former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.

A larger turnout lends greater validity to the outcome of elections, but just giving busy Americans the day off to vote every four years isn't necessarily the best reason for an election day holiday. In addition to improved turnout, it could lead to better elections.

A growing problem for election administrators is finding volunteers to serve as poll workers. Because so many adults work, the pool of workers is pretty much limited to retirees, and, for many older folks, the 13-hour election day can be too much.

But there are, we would wager, a fairly large number of people who would gladly volunteer at the polls if they didn't have to take time off from work to do so. It's a question of balancing civic rights and responsibilities with economic reality.

Common reasons for failing to participate in elections include not having the time and the feeling that “my vote doesn't count.” A national holiday for voting would obviate the first objection and, because more and better-trained poll workers would provide a smoother balloting experience, the second excuse as well.

After last year's electoral foul-ups in Florida and elsewhere, Americans not only need the time to vote but they also must be reassured that their votes are counted in an accurate and timely fashion.

Fortunately, Congress may finally be getting around to adopting a reform measure that will set minimum voting standards, provide for accurate voter registration systems, and allocate funds for states to replace outdated voting systems that invite errors.

For Ohio, this means replacing the antiquated punch-card systems in place in 69 of 88 counties, preferably with state-of-the-art touch-screen devices that allow voters to correct errors on their ballots.

Even with a voting holiday, a certain percentage of Americans undoubtedly still would choose not to carry out their voting responsibility, preferring to use the time for self-indulgence, as many do now on Monday holidays.

But eliminating the usual objections, while making voting easier and error-free, would allow the rest of us to cut off the whining by those who don't participate.

When barely half those eligible to vote actually show up, it qualifies as a national embarrassment.

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