Your Voice 2016


One more reason Columbus Day sucks: It’s making it harder for people to register to vote

Getty/Chris Hondros

As a chilly breeze blew through downtown Brooklyn this morning, I pulled up in front of the county board of elections office to update my voting address. The front door was, oddly enough, locked, so I walked around to the other side. As I dejectedly pulled at that door, a security guard standing nearby looked up, took a puff from his cigarette, and uttered three horrible words:

“It’s Columbus Day.”

There are many reasons why we should get rid of Columbus Day, most importantly because it honors someone who enslaved and murdered Native Americans. But here’s another, if you need one: it makes it harder for people to register to vote.

Because of the holiday honoring someone who brought smallpox to America, all post offices around the country and many state and local election offices are closed, even though voter registration deadlines in more than a dozen states are today or tomorrow.

I wasn’t the only one who forgot that we collectively decided to close down government services every second Monday in October. With Donald Trump’s insults at last night’s debate still ringing in their ears, Americans around the country had a rude awakening today when they went to register, update their voting information or to vote early:

This isn’t just an inconvenience: The holiday is screwing with voter registration deadlines around the country. Today is the deadline to register in four states—Arizona, Arkansas, and Hawaii, as well as online and by-mail registration in Washington State. And five more—Alaska, Mississippi, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah (by mail)—had their deadlines fall over the weekend.

As Democratic Senators Chuck Schumer of New York and Patrick Leahy of Vermont pointed out last month, deadlines that fall on a holiday or weekend could violate the National Voter Registration Act, which requires state offices to accept registrations postmarked 30 days before the election. Because there is no federal postal service today, you can’t mail in your application and have it postmarked in time to be counted.

The states are dealing with the quandary in different ways. In Arizona and Hawaii, for example, registrations must be submitted to county clerks by the end of the day today, even though there’s no mail service. In Arkansas, the deadline will be pushed to tomorrow and voter registration will be open today, as Secretary of State Mark Martin noted on Twitter:

Tomorrow is the deadline for registering to vote in 11 additional states, including in crucial swing-states Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, making Columbus Day another day people already pressed for time can’t take advantage of.

We’re already seeing states around the country put up barriers to the ballot box in the form of voter ID laws. Studies have shown that inconvenient voter registration procedures make people—especially young people—less likely to vote.

To add insult to injury, while we do have a federal holiday memorializing the “discovery” of a continent where millions of people already lived, we don’t have one for election day itself, making it harder for people who work to vote. Many other democracies around the world take election day off.

I’m going to go back to the Board of Elections tomorrow to make sure they have my correct address. But not everyone who was turned away today because of Columbus will do that.

“I dunno if I have it in me to go back another time,” Brian Kim, who got up early to register to vote at the Brooklyn DMV today only for it to be closed, told me in a Twitter direct message. “The dramatic arc of the 2016 election almost got me to go to the DMV voluntarily.”

“I thought we had decided as a country that we wouldn’t celebrate Columbus Day anymore because of colonialism or whatever,” he added.

More and more cities and states have come to that decision, and the rest of our country should get on board. We shouldn’t be celebrating a mass murderer—especially not if it makes it harder for people to vote.