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Opinion

EYE ON ILLINOIS: State holiday isn’t only way to increase voter participation

Election Day will be a government holiday this year, except for where it won’t. Got it?

In May, the General Assembly voted to close all government offices and schools Nov. 3 with the exception of use in support of voting. But the Illinois Municipal League challenged the law in a July lawsuit resolved Monday, when Sangamon County Judge Raylene Grischow agreed to exempt cities and counties.

Grischow’s opinion classified the law as an improper unfunded mandate based on unexpected holiday pay for law enforcement and firefighting personnel. It’s an understandable position, given emergency responders have to be on duty regardless and those duties wouldn’t seem any more or less important strictly based on voting.

Layer in the pandemic-enhanced budget crunches in every corner of Illinois and the Municipal League is on solid footing. Some cash-strapped governments could consider an unpaid furlough day, but that wouldn’t affect first responders and might run into opposition from union leadership.

That said, as a longtime advocate of increasing electoral participation, I encourage lawmakers to set aside some time next spring to determine a better way to achieve this goal before the 2022 election. With the unlikelihood of Congress enacting a federal holiday, there’s a chance state government action could influence the private sector.

If you don’t have to work, you don’t have to commute, and you can find time in the day to go vote in person (which, judging by my inbox and social media feeds, is by far the preferred method of those who doubt the wisdom or security of absentee voting). If government offices are closed, it’s easier to use taxpayer-funded (and already accessible to those with physical disabilities) buildings as polling places. 

Ancillary benefits include increasing the election judge pool and a positive association with voting, especially for students. But that upside also illuminates the downside: Getting the day off from work is helpful for freeing up voting time, but that time isn’t free if you have to be home with your young children the entire time.

Another factor undercutting the push is the dramatic increase in early and mail-in voting this cycle. Even if the pandemic is resolved by 2022, if those methods remain as popular it’s hard to justify giving a day off to someone who voted from home six weeks earlier. It seems likely most employers wouldn’t delight at losing a day of productivity and sales from workers and shoppers who don’t need or wouldn’t use the opportunity to hit up the polling place.

Another option is scrapping the state holiday plan but granting employees four hours of discretionary paid time off to vote once early voting starts, something some bosses already offer. Readers, what are your suggestions?

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.

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