- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 2, 2008

Should your job get in the way of going to the polls? Sen. Barack Obama doesn’t think so, and he has plenty of company.

On his Web site, Mr. Obama asked supporters last week to take time off of work and school on Election Day to vote and campaign by knocking on doors and making phone calls.

Mr. Obama, a Democrat is trying to tap into a sizable group of citizens who did not exercise their right to vote four years ago. Twenty percent of registered voters in the 2004 election said they did not vote because they were too busy or had conflicting work or school schedules, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Although Republican Sen. John McCain’s campaign reprimanded Mr. Obama for asking constituents to place his political interests first, election experts agree that more could be done to increase America’s notoriously low voter turnout.

Karen Harned, executive director of the small business legal center for the National Federation of Independent Business, says it is the employer’s responsibility to allow workers to vote.

“As good employers, you want your employees to be active in the community,” Ms. Harned said. “Whatever your policy is, make sure it is clearly and consistently communicated to employees.”

Some states allow voting by mail, more states allow citizens to vote early and all of them permit absentee voting. Other proposed solutions are more ambitious. Why not move Election Day to a Saturday or a Sunday? Why not make Election Day a national holiday?

Why Tuesday?, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization based in New York City, has been working to reform America’s voting system since 2005.

“We rank 139 out of 172 countries in voter participation worldwide, and we spend billions more than any other country on our elections,” said Barnett Zitron, managing director of Why Tuesday. “Whether it’s moving it to the weekend or making a national holiday, there is no silver bullet to making it more productive. But it will be better than the archaic design developed when America was based on an agrarian economy.”

Mr. Zitron acknowledges that other factors can affect turnout but says change has to start somewhere.

Why Tuesday has focused its efforts on moving elections to the weekend, because making Election Day a national holiday might encourage people to go out of town on a four-day bender rather than stay home and vote.

“I think that people do tend to go on vacation on holidays,” Mr. Zitron said. “So what would that mean in terms of absentee and early voting?”

Thirty-six states and the District now allow early voting, catering to people who have trouble finding the time to vote on Election Day.

Moving an election to the weekend would free up more people to volunteer as poll workers, noted District of Columbia Board of Elections spokesman Dan Murphy.

“The biggest impact might be that it would be easier to find poll workers if they didn’t have to go to work,” Mr. Murphy said. “I’ve seen arguments on both sides. Communities have tried Saturday/Sunday voting, and it hasn’t increased turnout the way they expected.”

The Weekend Voting Act, introduced by Rep. Steve Israel, New York Democrat, and Sen. Herb Kohl, Wisconsin Democrat, would move Election Day to the first Saturday or Sunday after the first Friday of November.

While the bill winds its way through Congress, American workers will have to come up with other ways to find the time to vote.

Seth Shapiro, owner of Marvelous Market on Capitol Hill, says he schedules work shifts so employees have plenty of time to vote.

“People come in with their ‘I Voted’ stickers, so it seems that our employees are getting out to the polls,” Mr. Shapiro said. “We want to make sure everyone votes, and no one has brought any problems to us about not having enough time yet.”

So far, 33 states, including Maryland but not Virginia and the District, have laws on the books requiring employers to give workers time off to vote. Some laws require employers to give their workers paid time off; others simply state that employees cannot be fired for leaving work to vote.

Kevin Kraham of the Littler Mendelson employment and labor law firm thinks conflicts between employers and employees can be resolved without drastic changes.

“Generally, employers permit their employees the time off to go vote,” Mr. Kraham said. “No matter where employers are, they shouldn’t discipline their employees for exercising their right to vote. Employers need to make sure to communicate, accommodate and get people out to vote.”

Maryland passed legislation in 2003 requiring employers to give employees two hours paid leave to vote if they do not have two continuous off-duty hours when the polls are open. However, employers have the right to require proof that an employee voted or attempted to vote.

Neither Virginia nor the District have laws requiring employers to provide time off for voting.


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