MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, did Tucson's ethnic studies program teach Mexican-American students to be proud of their heritage or to hate white people? Tucson recently suspended the program and we'll talk to the man who fought to shut it. He's a superintendent of instruction for Arizona schools and he is with us next. But first, South Carolina's primary is this Saturday and the hard-fought Republican primary is just part of the drama.
Last month the U.S. Justice Department rejected a new state law requiring voters to show a photo ID. Federal officials agreed with local and national civil rights activists who had complained that the law would make it harder for minorities to vote. But there's another group of activists who say there's something we all take for granted that makes it harder for lots of people to vote, and not just minorities. That is the tradition of holding elections on the first or second Tuesday of November.
The founders of Why Tuesday say that tradition is one reason voter participation in the U.S. is among the lowest in the world. Members come from across the political spectrum, including civil rights activists and former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young, and Norman Ornstein, co-founder of the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute. And joining us now is Why Tuesday's executive director, Jacob Soboroff. Welcome thanks so much for joining us.
JACOB SOBOROFF: Thank you so much for having me Michel.
MARTIN: Now, I was thinking of myself, before we were sitting down here, thinking I'm a fairly well educated person and I don't know why we vote on the first or second Tuesday of November, and then I felt better when I saw the video that your organization put together because even the presidential candidates don't know. Here's former Senator Rick Santorum. This is how he responded at an Iowa campaign stop last month.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
RICK SANTORUM: You know, it's not something I've really thought much about and I'm not - I'm certainly wedded to Tuesday. I don't think there's anything magical about Tuesday.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Do you know why we vote on Tuesday? It's crazy. Anybody know?
SANTORUM: Okay, I'm going to be stumped on this. Anybody know why we vote on Tuesdays?
MARTIN: Okay, so tell us. End the mystery, Jacob. Why do we vote on the first or second Tuesday in November?
SOBOROFF: Well, I hate to let you down but in 2012 there is absolutely no good reason whatsoever to be voting on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. A little bit longer answer is that ironically in 1845, Tuesday was the most convenient day. It took a day or longer for farmers to get to the county seat to vote, a day to get back without interfering with the Sabbath, and Wednesday was market day. So by process of elimination, Tuesday it was.
Obviously today Tuesday is probably the most inconvenient day possible to vote in the United States of America, and that's why we at Why Tuesday are suggesting we move federal election day to Saturday and Sunday so more people can vote.
MARTIN: Now, you've said that Tuesday is probably the worst day of the week to vote, at least in the way we live our lives now. Why is that?
SOBOROFF: If you're a single mother or a single father, you work two jobs, you're a student in school, and you live in one of the fourteen states in our union where voting is literally Tuesday or bust, you don't have the opportunity to cast an absentee ballot or vote early like so many of us today can, you're basically out of luck and you don't have an opportunity to vote. You know, it's just common sense that Tuesday is not a holiday, it's not a weekend, it's a work day in the middle of the week.
Why are we voting on that day?
MARTIN: You know, interestingly enough, the people who say that they're too busy to vote, that number increased in the most recent election. According to census data from 2010, close to 27 percent of eligible Americans who did not vote said that they were too busy. That compares to just over 17 percent of non-voters who gave the same reason in 2008. Why do you think that is?
SOBOROFF: I don't know why the number's going up. Perhaps because of the bad economy people have to work two jobs or something of that nature. If you look at the census data, not just from the last census but time and time again from previous reports, the number one reason always why - the non-voters give for not being able to make it to the polls is because that very reason, too busy, they had conflicting work or school schedules.
It's not - it really is not a mystery why America has such horribly low voter participation. We rank 138th, I think, out of 172 nations worldwide. All you have to do is look at the day on which we vote.
MARTIN: Well, you know what, there's some disagreement about that, and I want to get to that. But I do want to mention, as you mentioned, that you're saying a minority of states don't offer absentee voting or some provision for early voting, but a majority do. Why isn't that sufficient?
SOBOROFF: Because you know, why should the voters in those fourteen states which compromise(ph) literally millions of voters have to suffer because the rest of us have convenient voting options? I live in California, where I can be a permanent absentee voter if I so choose, but if you live in New York State, or again, one of the other fourteen states that don't give you that option, you literally have to make it to the polls in the hours that the polls are open. It doesn't matter what your circumstances are, and if you don't, you cannot cast the ballot, period.
MARTIN: We're talking about whether American federal elections should be moved to the weekends to boost turnout. Our guest is Jacob Soboroff of the group Why Tuesday. That's a bipartisan, or maybe you prefer nonpartisan, group that says that elections should actually be held on the weekends, when more Americans are available to vote and would be likely to vote. Now, obviously you know that people - there are people who disagree with your analysis here, or your theory about low turnout.
This is a comment from Newt Gingrich. It's also from the video that your group produced, Why Tuesday, and he doesn't agree with that premise. Here's it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
NEWT GINGRICH: I don't think turnout is a problem based on when we vote. I think turnout is a problem based on frankly negative campaigns and the kind of politics we've had. I just think people get disgusted.
MARTIN: What about that, Jacob?
SOBOROFF: I think people are turned off by negative campaigning, but I don't think that that's the reason why we have such low voter turnout in this country. There's negative campaigning all around the world, and if you look at countries around the world, we, as I said before, rank far behind almost all countries, all democracies in the world in voter participation. I think that that is an excuse, for lack of a better word, from Newt Gingrich in - as a substitute for putting forward an election reform plan, quite frankly.
MARTIN: And then just last week the government accountability office released a cost/benefit analysis about moving the date for federal elections or the day. It found no conclusive evidence that voter turn-out would go up if elections were held on weekends. They also found that it would cost more money. I don't know why. Maybe presumably because buildings like schools aren't necessarily budgeted to be open on the weekends, I presume that's the reason. What are your thoughts about that?
SOBOROFF: I think that the reason that the costs would go up is - first of all, I don't think the cost will go up by very much, and I think the reason that it would if it did would be because elections would be now held on two days, both Saturday and Sunday, making sure that no matter your religion, that you can make it to the polls over the course of the weekend. You know, we obviously were disappointed in the GAO's result and conclusions, but they basically said what we've said for a long time.
If you don't try federal elections on the weekend, we're not going to know for sure whether or not turnout is going to go up. Granted, some of the examples they looked at were local elections that were held on the weekend - they're just starting out and we need time for voters to be able to change their behavior in terms of getting out to the polls on the weekend. The GAO study also neglected to include any data from international elections, and as I said, if you look at the G8 nations, United States ranks dead last with about 50 percent turnout on average over the course of the last 50 years.
MARTIN: The G8 being our peer economies, places like, you know, like England, France...
SOBOROFF: That's exactly right, and if you look at the majority of those nations, who all vote at a higher rate than we do, I think all but one or two vote on the weekend.
MARTIN: You know, what about that? You mentioned the faith traditions earlier. What about people whose faith traditions preclude voting on Saturday or Sunday – say, Orthodox Jews who keep the Sabbath holy? People who - Christians who believe that Sunday should be a day, you know, of rest, perhaps aren't as strict about it as Orthodox Jews are, but who still feel it's just wrong to conduct normal business, particularly secular business, on either of those days - what about that?
SOBOROFF: Well, the idea put forward in the Weekend Voting Act, which is a bill that Representative Steve Israel, the congressman from Long Island, and Senator Herb Kohl from Wisconsin, have put forward, calls for having federal elections over the course of two days, Saturday and Sunday. So if you have a problem getting out on Saturday, you can vote on Sunday, and if you have a problem getting out on Sunday, you can vote on Saturday.
MARTIN: What kind of traction are you getting with this argument? As I mentioned, you've attracted support from people who generally are perceived as having different kind of political perspectives because for them it just makes common sense. But a lot of people just seem to have a hard time just wrapping their heads around the whole idea of changing this, just because of tradition. What kind of traction are you getting with this idea?
SOBOROFF: The traction's actually been unbelievable. Literally millions of people have seen our videos at WhyTuesday.org. In the 2008 election cycle I got out on the trail, as I did this time, as you can hear from the audio from the video we were playing - in 2008 I spoke with then-Senator Obama, then-Senator Biden, McCain, Mike Huckabee and Hillary Clinton, just to name a few, and all of these elected officials or candidates, short of Biden, said they think it's a good idea to move election day to the weekend, that they would at least give it a good hard look, if not endorse the proposal outright, as Hillary Clinton did in the video. You can see it at our website. And Mike Huckabee did the same thing.
MARTIN: And finally, you know, you mentioned countries around the world where voter participation is higher. I mean, there are people who would argue that there are countries where people have to dodge bombs and bullets. You know, in the first post-apartheid vote in South Africa, people literally waited in line for days and they had an 86 percent turnout.
And a lot of people just say, look, you know, America - the real issue is Americans just take this right for granted, and you know, what's so terrible about having to inconvenience yourself a teeny bit for the sake of participating, you know, in the world's greatest democracy?
SOBOROFF: I think what we saw in 2008 is that we had - well, we didn't have bombs and we didn't have national crises, so to speak. We did have a very, very important election in this nation and excitement that we've never seen before. With all of that excitement, with all the record money spent in the election, with the record media coverage, voter turnout, contrary to popular belief, in the 2008 election where Barack Obama was selected as our next president was not a record turnout.
MARTIN: So the conclusion is what? You think it's just a structural problem? It's not, you know...
SOBOROFF: Indeed. Indeed. It is - we need structural fixes to our voting system in this nation. For 167 years we've voted on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. If anyone had a computer and the operating system started running slow, you upgrade your operating system. The operating system of our nation for 167 years has gone without an upgrade. We think it's time for a voting system 2.0.
MARTIN: Quick question. Do you go in person to vote or do you send an absentee?
SOBOROFF: No. Generally I go in person. I vote at the Belleview Recreation Center in Silver Lake in Los Angeles.
MARTIN: You want to get those donuts. You don't fool me. Jacob Soboroff is the executive director of Why Tuesday? That's a nonpartisan group that aims to move American elections to the weekends, and he joined us from NPR West in Culver City, California.
Jacob, thanks so much for joining us.
SOBOROFF: Michel, thank you.