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Election Day: A Brief History of When and Why


Every other November, Americans go to the polls to vote in federal elections. Intense passion and debates go into these decisions, as a wave of political participation sweeps across the country. Why is Election Day when it is? After all, “the Tuesday following the first Monday in November” seems like an awfully random choice. How was that decided? Was there any reason? Why isn’t it on a weekend? Why in November at all?

The timing of American federal elections was not always so fixed. The first rules governing federal elections were passed in 1792. Those rules gave all states a 34-day period in which to vote for federal elections. This 34-day period ended on the first Wednesday in December, which was when each state’s electors met to cast their votes for President and Vice President.

Under this system, each state was free to choose how and when it voted just as long as it was within that 34-day time period, and so states did not all vote at the same time. As transportation and communication improved in the early republic, this quickly became problematic. Voters in states that voted later could be influenced by the results of other states. A state could wait until the end of the period to cast its votes in a close election and essentially decide the election.

Still, it took five decades for the rules to be changed. In late 1844 and early 1845 Congress revisited the issue and passed a new set of rules. In 1845, America was still primarily an agrarian society, with its citizens spread out across farms and connected mostly by horse-drawn vehicles over dirt roads. Traveling to the polling place often took an entire day. Because early November came after the harvest, but before the worst winter weather, it was the best choice for encouraging voter participation.

To avoid interfering with the Sabbath, neither Sunday nor Monday would work, since many farmers would need to prepare for or begin traveling the day before voting. So, Tuesday was chosen. In order to conform to the 34-day period, Election Day could not be on a Tuesday if that Tuesday happened to be November 1st, because the first Wednesday in December would be more than 34 days later. In order to avoid that possibility, it was decided that Election Day would be the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November, so the earliest it could ever be would be November 2nd and the first Wednesday in December would always be 30 days later, and thus within the 34 day window.

As for state and local elections, there are no federal rules regulating their timing. Most states choose to hold their elections at the same time as federal elections because it is more convenient and cost-effective. Five states have elections for governor and state legislators in off-years: Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Virginia. Local elections, such as for cities, municipalities, counties, and school boards, are much more diverse in their timing.

There have been efforts in recent decades to either change Election Day to a weekend or to make Election Day a federal holiday in order to make it easier for people to vote. Some states have declared Election Day a civic holiday, and other states have passed laws requiring employers to allow their workers to either arrive late or leave early so that they may vote. Almost all states do offer some form of early voting, often beginning as early as a month before election day, and many states also offer absentee voting, allowing voters to mail in their ballots. In 2008, approximately 30% of all votes were cast in early voting. Oregon has even gone as far as conducting all voting only by mail.

Election Day is a long and important tradition in American politics, but also one that has changed over time, especially in the last few decades. Today, the idea of a single “Election Day” seems increasingly outdated, as governments and civic organizations experiment with new ideas for engaging voters. The constant quest to increase participation in the electoral process often means making voting simpler and easier for average citizens. Many of the most successful tools, including early voting and mail-in-ballots, lower the importance of a single Election Day. All in all, one of the seemingly least notable aspects of the election process actually has its own set of issues and unique debates. As these debates continue, more and more ballots will include votes about Election Day itself.

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