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Shifting election day to weekend poses problems, report says

January 16, 2012 |  6:30 am

Voting
It seems like a good idea. Why not move elections to the weekend in an effort to boost voter turnout?

But the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has found challenges to the proposal. It could be difficult to find workers to staff polling places on weekends and locate replacements for some of the usual voting sites like churches.

"Most election officials we interviewed expect great difficulty and costs associated with a weekend election," the GAO said.  

The report, ordered by a House committee, was drafted in response to the Weekend Voting Act, a bill by Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.). Israel has proposed holding federal elections on Saturday and Sunday. Weekend voting, he has contended, would increase voter turnout and reduce lines at the polls by eliminating the peak voting times that occur on a Tuesday.

Congress in 1845 chose Tuesday for a voting day to give farmers enough time to get to county seats and vote without interfering with market or religious days.

Jacob Soboroff, executive director of WhyTuesday.org, which works to increase voter turnout, said in an interview, "You’ll never know how weekend voting is going to affect turnout unless we try it."

Responding to concerns about the cost of weekend voting, he added: "At the end of the day, we believe the cost to our nation is far higher in having lower voter participation than a small increase in the monetary cost of administering elections."

Israel, who introduced his bill in 2009 and plans to reintroduce it in this Congress, said in a statement that Tuesday voting is difficult for single parents, those who work long hours and those with a hectic commute.

"Tuesdays made sense in a different time in our history, but not in 2012." he said. "My legislation would have Americans join much of the rest of the world voting on weekends when it’s more convenient.”

A GAO survey of election officials, however, found concerns about the challenge and cost of securing ballots and voting equipment over the Saturday night of a weekend election.

Recruiting polling workers could be another problem.

"Election officials in one local jurisdiction said that about one-fourth of their approximately 23,000 poll workers for the 2010 general election were county employees and students. A weekend election would essentially end the incentives -- paying county employees their salary and excusing students from classes -- that the jurisdiction successfully used in the past to attract them to work at the polls on a Tuesday when they would normally be at work or at school," the report says.

But the report noted that some election officials surveyed did not anticipate difficulties finding the poll workers for a weekend election "because a larger pool of volunteers who work Monday through Friday might be available."

It was unclear whether weekend voting would increase voter turnout, according to the GAO.

"Election officials in the nine states and the District where we conducted interviews said that they expected moving election day from a Tuesday to a Saturday and Sunday would have little to no effect on total voter turnout," the report said.

In the 2010 general election, 35 states and the District of Columbia provided alternatives to voting on election day such as voting by mail, absentee voting, or in-person early voting. GAO reviewed 24 studies that found such alternatives had little effect on turnout, although voting by mail appeared to have the greatest effect.

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 --Richard Simon in Washington

Photo: A sign points motorists toward a polling place this week in New Hampshire. Credit: Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images

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