What President Lyndon B. Johnson called “one of the most monumental laws in the entire history of American freedom” is under attack. In the recent Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder, justices engaged in an oral argument over the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Specifically Section 5 prevents certain “covered” jurisdictions, many of which are southern states with deep histories of racial discrimination in voting, from making adjustments to their voting laws without first receiving federal clearance. Conservative justices generally suggested that this vital piece of the Voting Rights Act is no longer constitutional and should thus be revoked. The argument that took place before the Supreme Court has sparked a great amount of public debate, and for good reason. The right to vote is possibly the most sacred right of our country; its protection is fundamental to ensuring that our democracy properly functions. Many Americans, especially civil rights supporters, believe that overturning Section 5 would likely reverse the hard-fought progress made to safeguard public participation. Unfortunately, Supreme Court justices are not the only ones currently threatening this important right of ours—voters are too, but in a different way. According to the United States Elections Project, only 53.6 percent of the entire voting-age population exercised its right to vote in the 2012 presidential election. Such a statistic is not uncommon. Low voter turnout in presidential elections has been a long-standing problem in the United States. Data provided by The American Presidency Project indicates that the average voter turnout rate since the 1960 presidential election has been 55.15 percent. Many point to voter apathy, or eligible voters’ disinterest in going to the polls, as the cause of such poor public participation. Given that our country is founded on the principle that the people have sovereign power, which is largely exercised through the act of voting, voter apathy directly threatens our democracy. Combating such a deep-rooted problem must begin with rebuilding a sense of unity between the people and those who govern in their name. The United States Congress should establish Presidential Election Day as a national holiday thereby creating a sentiment that bonds us as a national community and encourages public participation.
Properly rebuilding a shared sense of national community must first begin with a discussion of the activity through which communities are created: communication. Communication creates a framework through which we make sense of our shared reality. Through the process of attaching meaning to communication symbols, or words, we create language. Language allows us to exchange information, insights, and ideas; all of these social interactions bind us together as a collective. According to work published by Ferdinand de Saussure, a well-known 20th-century Swiss linguist, the creation of language is an inherently collaborative activity. Words, as Saussure described, can be understood as a combination of the “signifier” and the “signified.” The signifier is the “sound-image” we give to something; it is what we hear, say, or write. The signified is the mental concept we give to something; it is our own internal visualization of an idea. Our understandings of the signifier and the signified develop through our social experiences with them. For illustration purposes, consider the term “American.” The signifier, the word “A-m-e-r-i-c-a-n,” we learn to say by hearing it repeatedly by others. The signified, the mental image that comes to mind when we hear the word “American,” is a culmination of all that we have learned being American represents, much of which is developed through our observations and conversations involving other people. The creation of words and the integrated system that is language—the very bedrock of communication—is thus a communal process.
In addition to building community through the collective experience of creating meaning, communication also allows us to engage with one another and use our interactions to establish order in society. It is through communication that a boss directs a subordinate, a coach teaches an athlete, and a parent encourages a child. It is also through communication that the American people maintain a connection with their government. As Thomas A. Hollihan notes in his book Uncivil Wars:
Politics is fundamentally a communicative activity…Because political officeholders need the support of the public at large, they must continually communicate with their constituents to explain their actions, clarify their goals, claim credit for their achievements, account for their failings, and gain support for new policy initiatives. The communication that sustains democracy is not only that which flows from political candidates and officeholders to voters and constituents; citizens, in turn, must express their concerns and desires to those holding power or aspiring to power.
Unlike in our everyday activities, we rarely have the opportunity to directly interact with those in government, requiring us to communicate through another type of “language”: voting. Voting is the most fundamental way in which the public communicates with the government. A vote can be understood as a message that indicates a citizen’s position on what he or she views as important, how he or she wants an issue to be resolved, and whom he or she wants to serve as a representative on their behalf. As the people’s public servants, government officials are then expected to decode these messages by making decisions that are consistent with their voters’ expressed desires. It is through this process that the people exercise their sovereign power as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. When communication is blocked between the people and the government not only does our democracy become compromised, but our shared sense of community also crumbles.
A community is a group of people who are bound by a sentiment of cohesiveness, engage in positive interactions, and share vested interest. Our country prides itself on being comprised of a diverse community. We celebrate that our people represent varied races, religions, and cultures. We embrace difference. As individuals we identify ourselves differently and as members of a national community we approach issues that affect us as a whole differently. We often use these opposing approaches to separate ourselves into smaller communities called political parties. Organizing in contrasting groups encourages productive public debate, contributing to a healthy democracy. In addition to engaging in discourse, maintaining an overarching vision of national community is also important to sustaining the democratic process. When people identify themselves as members of a community they feel compelled to act in ways that protect, benefit, or enhance that community. In other words, truly fostering a sense of community promotes public engagement, including going to the polls and exercising the right to vote.
The persistence of voter apathy in the United States can be attributed to an absent sense of national community between the people and the government, and it can be traced back to the mid-1960s and early 1970s. One of the primary causes of voter apathy is that the people do not feel as though their voices are being heard. Hence the ongoing trend of low voter turnout, the consequence of voter apathy, began at a point in our nation’s history when citizens’ voices were seemingly ignored. According to The American Presidency Project, the 1972 election voter turnout dropped below 60 percent for the first time in two decades, reaching a low 55.21 percent. Attempting to understand the likely cause of such a drop requires gauging the socio-political climate of the time, which in a single word can be characterized by the term “unrest.” The Vietnam War, which began in 1954 and did not end until 1975, negatively shaped public consciousness as it revealed a disturbing America with which much of the public did not identify. It also sparked the largest anti-war movement in our country’s history. As Edward P. Morgan states in The 60s Experience: Hard Lessons about Modern America:
For millions of Americans…the war revealed the power of political rhetoric and propaganda to mask an ugly reality. It exposed the degree to which the U.S. government would willingly and openly engage in repressive and inhumane actions, both overseas and at home, when the system itself was challenged. Public trust in authoritative institutions like Congress, the presidency, the military…plunged.
Our government used political rhetoric and propaganda—means of communication—to mislead the American people regarding the reality of the war. In response, throughout the mid-1960s and early 1970s, the American people used yet another form communication to express their disapproval: protest. In October of 1969, under the leadership of President Richard Nixon, over two million Americans participated in Vietnam Moratorium protests all across the country. Their voices, however, were ignored as the war continued on for many more years. In 1970 Nixon publically exposed a deliberate violation of the communication system that our democracy depends on when he openly acknowledged something that he earlier denied: that the United States military had also secretly bombed Cambodia. His public announcement, along with general exposure to the atrocities committed at the hand of American government and military, confirmed that integrity of our national community had been compromised. Even worse, it was at the hands of our leaders—people we elected to serve in our best interest. Trust, an essential piece of maintaining community, was destroyed. Since the 1968 election, voter turnout has not yet reached 60 percent since. The Vietnam War altered the fabric of American life, particularly because it damaged any pre-existing sense of national community.
Unfortunately the disconnection between the American people and the government that largely started as a result of the Vietnam War has since grown larger. Additional factors have continued to damage the system of communication upon which democratic governance depends. One such factor, for example, is the ever-increasing role that money plays in politics. The concept of voting—the idea that each citizen, regardless of their economic background or access to resources, gets one vote—was introduced to create a level playing field in which all votes are equal. However, with money now considered free speech due to the 2010 Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, even with all votes being equal, some citizens have more influence than others. Super political action committees, or “super PACs,” which are generally affiliated with large corporations, are the heirs of the Citizens United decision; they have the ability to make unlimited monetary contributions to political candidates. Super PACs undoubtedly alter our country’s political landscape as it turns the concept of a level playing field, which was intended to protect the average voter, into nothing more than a utopian ideal. Moreover, a second factor harming the average citizen’s ability to communicate with their government is the unprecedented increase in the polarization of political parties. Public opinion is becoming starkly divided, often failing to highlight areas of common ground. Given these two factors, among others, the great “American disconnection” seems to be developing a constantly widening gap. Public perception of our country is no longer one of unity; it is one of fear that elected officials will not serve the collective needs of the citizens, but the interests of their partisans. Such lack of confidence correlates with voter apathy.
Most Americans believe in our political process itself but not in the government officials whose job it is to represent us. Our lack of unity, and therefore public participation, can be attributed to our broken relationship with government. A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center indicates that 68 percent of Americans express unfavorable opinions about Congress. A majority of the population, 56 percent, believes that the political system can function properly but the politicians, particularly the members of Congress, are the problem. This sense of satisfaction towards our democratic process is understandable given that the system itself was designed to elevate the voices of the people. Such a process only works, however, when both parties—the people and the government—properly fulfill their roles. If a majority of the people point to government officials as the source of distrust in our national community then one thing is clear: the general public does not feel decisions are being made in their best interest. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center’s findings, nearly three quarters of our population believe that they can only trust the government some of the time or not at all. We need to fix our relationships with government as they are fundamental to the composition of our national community. Doing so will provide a space in which people are confident in participating in the political process, especially by voting on Election Day.
While it is certainly not the only step that should be taken in effort to mend our increasingly divided national community, Congress establishing Election Day as a national holiday would allow us to take a significant step in repairing our faulty “foundation” of communication. The presidential election is particularly important because the people vote for the candidate they believe best represents how they conceive themselves as a nation. Declaring Election Day as a national holiday that also applies to state laws is inherently communicative. It sends a message on behalf of Congress that repairing our national community is a priority and it requires protecting that which makes us distinct as a nation: the people having sovereign power. Congress has already established 11federal holidays, all of which are intended to “[emphasize] particular aspects of the American heritage that molded the United States as a people and a nation.” Voting is more than just an “aspect” of American heritage; it helps shape American heritage. It is through voting that the people decide what issues are important, how they should be solved, and who is going to do the solving. In a properly functioning democracy—and in an effectively established community—the average citizen should feel compelled to vote. Citizens are more likely to engage in the political process when they have confidence in the government’s desire to hear and reflect public opinion.
In addition to establishing a sentiment that will bring us together as a national community, subsequently combating voter apathy, making Election Day a national holiday would also improve voter turnout by making it entirely more convenient for people to get to the polls. In the United States, presidential elections fall on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. This timing often deters those citizens who must either wake up early in the morning to get to work or leave work late in the evenings to make up for the time spent voting. Additionally, it is also often difficult for people with young children to find the time to vote on a weekday. Having the day off due to Election Day would drastically improve accessibility to the polls, expressing to the American people that total public participation in voting is vital to the mission of our democracy, and the government wants to hear every citizen’s voice.
Some might disfavor the idea of establishing Election Day as a holiday, arguing that most people treat holidays as a mini vacation and do not reflect on the reasons for which they exist in the first place. For example, Independence Day, which is most often referred to as the Fourth of July, some might say, has become an excuse to host barbecues, watch fireworks, and get inebriated; rarely do families use the time off to commemorate the birth of the Declaration of Independence, which established our thirteen American colonies as independent states free from the British Empire. All national holidays absolutely have special significance. Independence Day, in fact, celebrates the very nascent stages of creating this national community that is the United States of America. However, most national holidays honor events of the past, and if they celebrate an event of the present they are not coupled with set notions of civic engagement. Election Day in the United States is already established as the day dedicated to general elections of government officials; it is designed for public participation that is timely and relevant—i.e. voting. As a holiday it would celebrate citizens’ right to vote by encouraging them to do so. As a holiday, Election Day would be designated to allowing citizens to vote; resulting increases in voter turnout would prove it effective.
The nexus of communication, community, and public participation, if properly understood and applied, could combat voter apathy in the United States. As with solving any problem, identifying the root cause is important in making effective change. Improving the system of communication, which builds and sustains communities, between the American people and the government should be a top priority. Congress establishing Election Day as a national holiday is in itself a communicative act that could serve as a beneficial first step in communication improvement. In fact, if he were here today, Ferdinand de Saussure might argue that such an act would lead to a collaborative evolution of meaning. In other words, it could change the way we perceive Election Day. The signifier “E-l-e-c-t-i-o-n D-a-y” could potentially automatically trigger a corresponding signified that indicates civic engagement. Upon hearing “Election Day,” citizens could envision themselves voting. Such a cognitive process might even have the potential to change the way in which we view holidays altogether; citizens might be inspired to celebrate other national holidays through engaging in some sort of public participation. Regardless of any auxiliary benefits, establishing Election Day as a national holiday is a necessary step in preventing voter apathy from hindering our nation’s democratic process.