The city of Sandusky, Ohio just made a small but significant change to encourage civic participation.
Sandusky, which is located in the north of the state on the banks of Lake Erie, made Election Day a paid holiday — swapping it out for Columbus Day.
The swap only impacts roughly 250 municipal employees, NPR reports, but the change is significant for several reasons: It tackles Columbus Day, a controversial holiday, expands access to the polls, and it’s inspiring other cities to look into similar action.
“You know, some of the criticism that we’ve heard has really been around a couple of things, and one of those pieces of criticism is that it’s actually a pretty narrow application of the voting base, because we don’t have the ability to apply it to voters outside of city employees,” city manager Eric Wobser told INSIDER in an interview on Monday. “But again, we look at this as one effort of many efforts that we can make to improve access or remove barriers [to voting].
“This can spark a lot of conversation in the city with private employers or beyond the city with other local governments,” Wobser said. “Our hope is that this can make a deeper impact.”
And so far it has, Wobser told INSIDER that “we have heard from a lot of other local government that are considering doing something similar now,” from all around the country.
The genesis for this piece of legislation began with 2018 discussions on how to expand access to the polls and union negotiations four years prior that included dropping Columbus Day as a holiday.
The legislation went into immediate effect and will mean that this year’s Columbus Day, on October 14, 2019, will not be a paid holiday in Sandusky, while Election Day will be.
“In 2018 when we began conversations with the unions, we were much more focused on Election Day and prioritizing eliminating barriers to access the polls,” Wobser said, which in addition to wanting to make Election Day a holiday, included free rides to the polls.
During the 2019-2021 negotiations with the three major unions representing city workers, which began in 2018, the idea of swapping Columbus Day for Election Day as a paid holiday was met with very little pushback, Wobser told INSIDER.
According to NPR, the main concern was giving up the possibility of a three-day weekend, but the prospect of increased civic engagement ultimately won out.
After the agreement with the unions, legislation was drafted and brought to the nonpartisan, democratically elected city commission which voted on it. Wobser explained that the process was relatively simple, essentially amending the legislation on paid holidays to strike out Columbus Day and add in Election Day.
Beyond being known for making Election Day a holiday, Wobser hopes that Sandusky will also be recognized for its diversity, economic development, and booming tourism industry (it is also home to the Cedar Point amusement park).
Election Day as a holiday is not a novel concept, and House Democrats in the 116th Congress have drafted the HR 1 bill, which in addition to other measures, would make Election Day a holiday for employees of both public and private employers.
“For purposes of any law relating to Federal employment, the Tuesday next after the first Monday in November in 2020 and each even-numbered year thereafter shall be treated in the same manner as a legal public holiday described in section 6103 of title 5, United States Code,” the bill reads.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell balked at the idea, referring to the overall anti-corruption bill as a “power grab.”
“Just what America needs,” he said on the Senate floor, “another paid holiday and a bunch of government workers being paid to go out and work, I assume our colleagues on the other side, on their campaigns.” According to a poll conducted last year by The Hill, 54% of Americans surveyed think Election Day should be a national holiday.
Wobser says the city of Sandusky’s plan did not arise out of partisan politics, but rather to focus on what they can do to help people at the local level — without waiting for state or federal action.
“But it’s hard for me to understand how increasing access to the ballot, or increasing somebody’s ability to vote could be partisan at all,” he said.