Ethics at Work: Can we afford a day off for voting?

There is a powerful economic and democratic logic to introducing advance voting.

asher meir 88 (photo credit: )
asher meir 88
(photo credit: )
A prominent crossroad of ethics and democracy is the state's attitude toward work on Election Day. In Israel, we will get a day off to go to the polls on Tuesday. Yehuda Alhadif, president of the Association of Craft and Industry, drew attention to Israeli policy in this regard when he called for a boycott of the Election Day vacation as a protest against lack of government action to help small businesses weather the recession. A boycott of the vacation means small businesses would stay open; since Election day is defined as a vacation day, that means workers would have to be paid overtime. All solutions to the Election Day problem have benefits and costs from an economic and democratic point of view. National policies on Election Day vary greatly. In most Western European countries the problem of reconciling elections and work is solved very easily: elections are held on Sunday, which in any case is a day off. This solution does not translate very well to Israel, given that Shabbat makes all official activity impossible starting Friday evening. Thus, having elections on Friday makes night voting impossible. We could solve this in typical Jewish fashion by having Election Day start Thursday night. But this would make it impossible to take prompt care of the ballots, which is a necessity for the appearance and substance of clean elections. (Not to mention having the entire nation's nerves on edge for the entire Shabbat as ballots would not be counted until Saturday night.) The United States is at the other extreme; in most states, Election Day is not a holiday at all, though there is a requirement that each employee be given an opportunity to vote. From an economic point of view, Sunday voting has the advantage that people don't lose a day of work. But it has the disadvantage of greater cost to hire voting-supervision personnel on a weekend. From a democratic point of view, Sunday voting has the advantage that virtually everyone can reach the polls. But it is sometimes thought that it lowers voter turnout because people are reluctant to give up weekend activities. Some people are religiously opposed to voting on the Christian Sabbath, and there is also the logistical issue: In many countries, churches are a common and convenient venue for polling places, but on Sundays they are in use. Weekday voting without giving a vacation day, as in the US, does seem to give the impression that voting is merely one more activity to squeeze into a busy day, rather than the essence of every person's civic duty. Conversely, making it on a weekday while giving a day off seems to emphasize its importance: Election Day attains the stature of a national holiday. One clever solution used in Canada is to enable "advance voting," which in effect means that voting takes place over several days. This obviates the need to give a day off since anyone can find some free moments over a period of days. It does increase the number of hours needed for workers at polling places, but not proportionately to the increase in the number of days; on each day fewer workers are needed since the load is spread out. This solves many other access problems as well: bad weather, a broken-down automobile, being out of town on a visit - which are far less likely to persist over a number of days. Advance voting has two potential disadvantages from a democratic point of view. One is that the existence of exit polls can create a situation where people who wait until the last minute may find that their vote will not have an impact and they will be discouraged from voting. Since voting is meant to make the voice of the people heard and not only choose elected officials, this effect would be detrimental to democracy. This danger is not great in Israel. A mandate for a Knesset seat is only a few tens of thousands of votes; there will always be seats decided by a relatively few votes, much fewer than the margin of error of exit polls. The other disadvantage of advance voting is the difficulty of keeping the ballot boxes from being tampered with - and of convincing people that you have done so. This danger is actually greater in Israel than in Europe and the US because charges of ballot-stuffing are rampant here. The logistical cost of making sure there is a fair election with advance voting falls on tens of thousands of people who oversee the balloting. But the economic cost of a day off falls on a few million. As such, it seems to me that there is a powerful economic and democratic logic to introducing advance voting. Having the polls open two days in a row from early morning until late at night would make voting easier for most people than having a single day defined as a holiday. The increased administrative cost would be very small compared to the cost of shutting down the country for a day. The main offsetting democratic harm, that of exit polls, is minimal in Israel - where every election is a cliff-hanger and it routinely takes days to determine the final allocation of Knesset seats. (Not to mention the legendary poor accuracy of exit polls here.) I don't know what the chances are that next time we vote we will have a few days to do so. But given the life expectancy of Israeli governments, it's probably higher than the chances we will have to wait four full years to find out. Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in the Jerusalem Institute of Technology.