Santa Fe city employees will have virtually no excuse for not voting in the November general election if the mayor and City Council approve a plan to give the estimated 1,400 municipal workers a half-day off to cast ballots.
“I believe the intention is to close half-day,” Assistant Human Resources Director Ashley Barela said during a recent meeting of the city Finance Committee, which unanimously endorsed the idea as part of the city’s 2020 holiday calendar.
However, councilors on the committee said they want to know how much the proposal would cost taxpayers.
In the past, city employees have received up to two hours of paid leave to vote on Election Day, which the city’s Human Resources Department says might not be enough for them to participate in the democratic process.
“This will allow employees time to get to the polls to cast their votes and will minimize the challenges of scheduling conflicts during regular work shifts,” Bernadette Salazar, the city’s human resources director, wrote in a memo to Mayor Alan Webber and the City Council.
“According to information published on electionday.org, in the last mid-term election, only 36.4 percent of the voting-eligible population cast ballots, which was down 41 percent in 2010 and was the lowest turnout rate in 70 years,” Salazar wrote. “Additionally, [the website] stated that the most common reason that nonvoters gave [for not voting] was that they simply did not have time to vote due to work or school conflicts.”
Giving employees more time “to exercise their rights to vote will foster the purpose of civic engagement and support the movement to increase voter turnout,” Salazar added.
Election officials in recent years have sought to improve turnout by setting up voter convenience centers around the community to accommodate the growing number of voters who cast early or absentee ballots rather than wait until the date of an election.
Santa Fe County gives employees up to two hours to vote on Election Day and doesn’t have any plans to change that, county spokeswoman Carmelina Hart said.
In last month’s local election, Hart said 90 county employees took advantage of the perk.
“The total [administrative] leave voting time that we clocked was 135 hours from these 90 employees — most of them look like they took about an hour to do it — and the value of those 135 hours” was about $2,857, she said.
The state government gives its employees two hours of administrative leave to vote on Election Day.
María Pérez, former director of the election reform group FairVote New Mexico, said she was “very pleased” to hear the city is considering giving employees four hours off to vote.
“I am of the opinion that a voting day should be a national holiday," she said, "and if the city of Santa Fe is considering giving city workers a half-day to get to the polls, I think that’s wonderful.”
Legislation has been introduced in Congress that would shift federal elections to weekends as a way to increase voter participation. Although the U.S. since 1845 has held federal elections on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even-numbered years, advocates of holding elections on the first weekend of November note that Tuesday was selected because it was the most convenient day for voting in 19th-century America. Most eligible voters were farmers, and it could take a full day to travel by horse and buggy to a visit polling site. Tuesday was preferred because it would not require travel on the Sunday Sabbath for Christians or interfere with “market day” on Wednesday.
Though city councilors on the Finance Committee endorsed the half-day-off proposal, they requested a fiscal impact report specifying projected costs of closing for that much of a work day.
“We will work with [Human Resources] to ensure that is included in your packet going forward,” said Mary McCoy, the city’s finance director.
Barela told the committee her office would do “additional research.”
“For those that do not have the opportunity to participate because the city services have to remain open … there were would an overtime cost that would be associated with that,” she said.
City Councilor Roman “Tiger” Abeyta, who chairs the Finance Committee, said he needs to know the financial impact of the proposal.
“I don’t necessarily object to the idea, especially for a general election,” he said. “In case of a presidential election, it might take more than two hours to stand in line and vote.”
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.