What If Election Day Were a Holiday, and Everyone Was Registered?

AP Photo/John Minchillo

A line of early voters wait in queue at the Franklin County Board of Elections, Monday, November 7, 2016, in Columbus, Ohio. Heavy turnout has caused long lines as voters take advantage of their last opportunity to vote before election day. 

In a sane year, the very definition of chutzpa would be for an Israeli to give Americans advice about how to create a better democracy. Israel rules over the West Bank, where Israeli settlers can vote and the Palestinian majority it can't. It still has Ottoman-era laws that put religious authorities in charge of marriage and divorce. I wouldn't normally dare to hold it up as a model to Americans.

But this is 2016, the year of hallucinatory politics in America, when demons have risen from suppressed memory into conscious life, when picture ID requirements have been conjured up to replace literacy tests and polling places serving minorities evaporated in places with a history of voting suppression in the past. Reading reports of all this, I'm willing to dare to suggest that, dear Americans, you can find wisdom in the strangest places. The United States could actually learn several things from a small Middle Eastern country about how to encourage people to vote and to make sure that every citizen can exercise that right. 

Let's leave aside reforms that America's history and constitutional rigidity make impossible—such as proportional elections, which allow more than two parties to compete realistically. When people have more choices, they arguably have more motivation to vote. But that's not happening on your side of the Atlantic. So I will stick with three suggestions.

To start, take the day off. In Israel, Election Day is a national holiday. Government offices and most businesses are closed. This is a huge boon to working people, and especially to those lower on the economic ladder, whose work hours tend to be more rigid. You don't have to figure out whether to go vote before starting work or on the way home, knowing that at both times the lines are long.

Some people do have to work on Election Day, like the staff of emergency rooms and cafes (both, after all, provide lifesaving infusions). But they, too, benefit from polls that are open till 10 p.m. The average number of voters per polling place in Israel is under 600. The likelihood of standing in line for more than a few minutes is small.

I imagine someone pointing out the economic cost of adding a national holiday every other year. This isn't an economic question, though, because it is impossible to assign a sufficient dollar value to a greater opportunity to vote for everyone, especially for working people. To avoid confusion, I should stress that I'm not suggesting the national Election Day holiday as a replacement for early voting, but as an addition.

Now try for a more radical lesson from Israeli election practice: Institute a national population registry in America, with ID cards for all citizens.

I once had a visiting California state senator over for dinner with my family in Jerusalem and I proposed this. He was shocked. He was a progressive, and up to then, the conversation had shown him he was dining with like-minded folks. How could I propose such a Big Brotherish step?

Very simply, I explained, because it means that every single citizen is always registered to vote. It eliminates a major cause of disenfranchisement—one that almost certainly affects the less powerful members of society more.

The instinctive American reaction is that registering all citizens is very close to fascistic. It means that the government knows your name and your address and has given you a number.

This reaction is anachronistic. It's virtually impossible to function in America without a Social Security number, which is a government-assigned ID number. The IRS knows where you live. Your state's motor vehicle department requires a picture ID as the entrance price for driving. Every time you buy something online, you give lots more information to corporations with much less accountability than can be demanded of a government. Anonymity is so 20th century. Actually, it's so 19th century.

But even if I concede, for argument's sake, that universal registration means surrendering another slice of your right to privacy, there's a payoff that I submit is very worth the price: It increases your right to vote.

The Republicans want picture IDs, right? I suggest that progressives respond by saying, “Fine, every citizen will get one.” It would be the end of using the ID requirement for voter suppression. I'm curious as to how many Republicans will agree to the proposal.

How difficult is it to register a nation's population? Here's the extreme case: In Britain, on September 29, 1939, the entire population was registered, with people called “enumerators” visiting every household: In one day, 41 million people were registered, on paper, without software. It was a wartime measure. Among other things, it allowed for issuing ration cards. Where there was a need, there was a way.

The moment an Israeli turns 18, she's automatically on the voting rolls. The population registry has your address and sends you a card before elections notifying you of your polling place. You can also look it up. The one bit of registration work that will remain for political activists is to make sure that people register changes of addresses or arrange to vote at their old addresses.

But some people have reasons they can't get to their polling place. For reasons too complicated to explain here, which are valid in Israel but irrelevant to America, Israel doesn't have absentee ballots. So there are special polling places in hospitals, and in military bases—and in prisons.

Yes, prisoners vote, not just after their sentences but during them. Which brings to me a third thing about Israeli elections that America should emulate: The right to vote is immutable and irrevocable. If you are a citizen, you can vote. The fact that you sold some oxy doesn't change that.

What about murderers? Folks, the detestable assassin of Yitzhak Rabin has the right to vote in Israel. I admit that makes me uncomfortable. But in Israel, as in America, there's a sad reality that members of underprivileged groups get arrested, convicted, and jailed more than other people do, often for relatively minor offenses. Disenfranchisement would double the injustice. A bit of nausea at the idea of Yigal Amir voting is a price worth paying to avoid that.

There are no perfect choices. Among the imperfect ones, the better choices reach for a universal right to vote—in practice, not just in theory.

There's a great deal that Israel could learn from American democracy, even if the American brand has been badly damaged this year. Learning can go both ways. If you imagine how the entire American election would have looked with these measures in place, I think you'll see that there would have been less darkness and more light. Or, instead of wistfully imagining, get to work on implementing them. They're not patented; there is no licensing fee.

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