Voting rights advocates across the country have long believed Election Day should be a legal holiday. Millions of non-voters say they’re too busy to cast ballots, so the thinking goes that if more people have Election Day off, voter participation will increase.
This was the same logic of Colorado Democrats who drafted a bill in January to make Election Day a state holiday. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Adrienne Benavidez in the House and Sen. Julie Gonzales in the Senate, also proposed to repeal Columbus Day, which dozens of local and state governments have renounced in recent years, and in many cases replaced with an Indigenous Peoples Day.
On Thursday, Benavidez, of Adams County, was to present her repeal-and-replace holiday bill before a legislative committee, but at the outset of the hearing she announced a change in plans: her bill would no longer affect Election Day, and would instead focus only on renaming Columbus Day as Colorado Day.
Though the Election Day-as-a-holiday measure was introduced in an effort to expand voting access, it fizzled, counterintuitively, because some are concerned the bill would have actually decreased turnout.
As drafted, it would have applied only to public employees, since the government cannot compel the private sector to take off Election Day, or for that matter on any day.
Groups that advocate for voting rights, including New Era Colorado, contacted legislators ahead of Thursday’s hearing to raise the fear that closing state government on Election Day would also mean closing or limiting access to transit lines, community centers, libraries and college campus buildings — facilities and services many voters rely on to get to work or school, or to cast their ballots.
While interest remains in repealing Columbus Day — Benavidez said she will soon be bringing a revised bill to do just that — pairing that effort with a new Election Day holiday quickly became unpopular with Benavidez and other lawmakers, including some who said they’d supported the measure up until very recently.
“It took us a while to understand this was an issue,” said Rep. Chris Kennedy of Lakewood, a Democrat who chairs the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, which heard Benavidez’s bill. “There’s a growing consensus that Columbus Day is celebrating the life of a genocidal racist, but the fact that making Election Day a holiday would actually reduce voter turnout was a new part of the conversation we hadn’t taken into consideration.”
What Kennedy and his fellow committee members now understand, he said, is that creating a new state holiday could not only decrease turnout overall, but perhaps marginalize the very voters Benavidez’s scuttled bill sought to help — that is, working-class people and young people.
“The populations we’re most worried about for voter turnout are people who are not working the kinds of jobs who get state holidays off,” Kennedy said. “Those are the ones voting in high numbers already. It’s people in retail establishments, the people who’d be working the mattress sale while the rest of us have the day off.”
Lizzy Stephan, executive director of New Era Colorado, echoed the sentiment. Her organization focuses much of its attention on rallying young people to participate in politics, and it’s proven a potent pipeline for young Democratic leaders at the local, state and — with the election of U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, who co-founded the group — national levels.
“We’re not big fans of Election Day holiday given potential impacts on school and transit schedules, and increased workloads for service workers and retail workers,” Stephan wrote in a text message.
Reached by phone following Thursday’s committee hearing, Benavidez indicated these concerns were relatively new to her, and said her bill was amended at the advice of outside other groups.
Meanwhile, debate simmers in Washington, D.C., over the question of whether Election Day should be a holiday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said earlier this week that he thought the proposal amounted to a “power-grab” by Democrats.
“Voting is a power grab. By citizens,” Brian Schatz, a Democratic senator from Hawaii, shot back.