For the average working American, voting on a Tuesday can be a major inconvenience to the routine business week. In a TED Talk about Election Day, Jacob Soboroff features interview clips of prominent politicians who are incapable of explaining why the American people vote on Tuesdays. Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, and John Kerry – all of them had trouble answering this question. Fortunately, a quick review of America’s agrarian roots provides the answer to this mystifying question.
The tradition of voting in presidential elections on Tuesdays in November began in 1845. Before then the Congress gave states the power to hold elections at any time within a 34-day period before the first Wednesday in December. This system had many flaws; for example, early voting in some states frequently affected late voting in others.
In Democracy Despite Itself: Why a System That Shouldn’t Work at All Works So Well, Danny Oppenheimer and Mike Edwards explain that Congress took a number of factors into consideration before sanctioning an official Election Day in 1845. First, legislators wanted to set a date that was after the fall harvest, but before the cold set in, to accommodate the large number of farmers who were unable to take time off from tending to their crops. For the religious population, Congress tried to keep Election Day from falling on the Sabbath and All Saints Day. Oppenheimer and Edwards also note that Congress wanted to avoid Market Day, which typically fell on Wednesdays. Lastly, the 1st of November was also eliminated because it was a popular time for men to balance their account books. To avoid these conditions, and satisfy the majority of the eligible voters, Election Day was scheduled as the first Tuesday of November, following the first Monday.
In a nation that values tradition over change, it is difficult to modify the election process. According to the 1845 standard of living, the placement of Election Day was extremely practical; however, in the modern era, not all people believe that this is still the case. Why Tuesday?, a non-partisan organization, is one of many that is committed to creating a dialogue about present voting conditions. Its ultimate goal is to make it easier for Americans to vote.
In a study done by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance eligible voters were asked why they were unable to vote on Election Day. This report, along with U.S. Census data and a study done by the Pew Research Center, show that the number one reason voters gave for failing to cast a ballot was that they had a scheduling conflict with work or school. This may account for America’s legendary low turnout rates. In the midterm elections of 2014 barely 36 percent of eligible voters voted. The turnout rate is so low in the United States that out of 172 nations the US ranks 138. It’s dead last among the G7 countries.
There are three main alternatives to voting on the first Tuesday in November, following the first Monday. The most popular solution among the states is to implement some form of early voting that does not require a physical presence in a voting booth on Tuesday; all but fourteen states have established some form of early voting. Another popular solution is to move Election day from the business week to the weekend. Voting on Saturday or Sunday is not a unique idea; in fact, five G7 countries, all with higher turnout rates than the United States, vote on the weekend. A bill to establish Weekend Voting has been introduced in Congress, but has failed to pass. Lastly, some organizations and individuals, like Senator Bernie Sanders, suggest that Election Day be made a national holiday to ensure that everyone has a chance to vote.
The debate over Election Day transcends political party affiliation. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee have both stated their willingness to move Election Day to the weekend. President Barack Obama is one of many politicians who endorses policies that would make it easier to vote. While some politicians support the date change, there are others who do not. Before Vice President Joe Biden is willing to commit to a change, he wants to see more conclusive data that supports the relationship between turnout and Election Day. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich stated that he does not believe voter turnout is related to the date that America votes.
It is clear that America in 2016 is vastly different from America in 1845. The number of eligible voters has immensely increased since; citizens can now vote regardless of race, sex, or socioeconomic status. As a nation, we have greater access to information and transportation. It is now up to Congress to decide if it is time to keep, or abolish, the agrarian tradition and determine a new fate for Election Day.
Andrews, Evan. “Election 101: Why do we vote on a Tuesday in November?” History Channel (accessed September 19, 2016).
Oppenheimer, Danny and Mike Edwards. Democracy Despite Itself: Why a System That Shouldn’t Work at All Works So Well (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012).
Pintor, Rafael López, Maria Gratschew, and Kate Sullivan, “Turnout Rates from Comparative Perspective,” International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (accessed September 19, 2016).
Simmons-Duffin, Selena, “Why Are Elections On Tuesday?” NPR (accessed September 19, 2016).
Voting and Registration, United States Census Bureau (accessed September 19, 2016).
Why Tuesday? Frequently Asked Questions (accessed September 19, 2016).
Why Tuesday? Quotes (accessed September 19, 2016).