Our latest episode with Seth Flaxman of Democracy Works is all about how his organization is making it easier than ever to vote. They’ve created TurboVote, which lets you register to vote and order absentee ballots online, making it more convenient to do our civic duty. While we were talking, Seth mentioned that Election Day (the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November) was also originally designed to make things easier for the voting public, although it is no longer as convenient as it once was.
Listen to our talk with Seth here!
Why We Vote on Tuesday
As we’ve mentioned in previous posts, when many of our democratic norms were created, America was a totally different country, and the American electorate was similarly different. Almost everyone was a farmer, or at least living in a rural area. According to the US Census, in 1800, 93.9% of America’s population lived in a rural area. This makes sense considering most of the present-day US wasn’t part of the US yet.
Election regulations were pretty lax for a long time, mostly because information and people took a lot longer to travel than they do now. Originally, states could set Presidential elections on any date in the 34-day window before the first Wednesday in December. The election still usually took place sometime in November, but there was a fair amount of leeway given to factor in one of the most important seasons in rural America: harvest time.
Most of the United States harvested (and still harvests) their corn and cotton crops during the month of October. In an agrarian society you’re not taking time off for anything if you need to harvest. So, for the sake of convenience, voting happened after the harvest to allow all those farmers to get their jobs done before doing their civic duty. Well, all the white farmers, anyways—African Americans didn’t get the right to vote until the 15th Amendment was passed in 1870, and didn’t get real voting rights until 1965 (which you can read about in our last post).
Technology and Tuesdays
This ‘vote-when-you-want’ system lasted until 1845 when a new technology swept the nation and disrupted communication all over the US: the telegraph.
With the telegraph came instant (or near-instant) communication for every state in the nation. News could now travel at the speed of sound, and Congress got worried the electoral results of one state could unduly influence other states who had yet to vote, so they decided the US needed a uniform election day. They chose the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November for a few reasons.
First, that kept it within the 34-day window states originally had, and made sure the harvest was still over before voting began. Second, since there had to be a Monday proceeding it, it ruled out November 1st, which is All-Saints Day and was a pretty big deal to many Americans.
Tuesday was also ideal for economic reasons. Traveling to your polling location could take a full day because voters were traveling on unpaved roads by buggy or foot. So Monday was out because that would force people to travel on Sunday, or the Sabbath, which was a big no-no. According to retired Senate historian Donald Ritchie, Wednesday was often market day, and those farmers needed to be back in their communities to sell their new harvests. For the sake of convenience, you traveled to your polling location on Monday, voted Tuesday morning, and then hustled back to buy and sell stuff on Wednesday. Totally convenient for everyone in 1850 — slightly less so in 2020.
Today most people have cars. 80% of America’s population lives in an urban environment. Going to the polls can still be a hassle, but it isn’t a two-day ordeal. Everyone needs to go to work on Tuesdays; having elections on a Tuesday when you can’t get time off from work is definitely a hassle. One of the leading reasons people don’t vote is that they are “too busy.” One way to combat this problem is to make early voting and absentee voting more easily accessible. Thirty-three states now have early voting, and more than 38 million people voted early in 2018.
Some people would like to see Election Day either become a Federal Holiday, or just moved to a weekend, as bills such as the Election Day Holiday Act of 2019 indicate. However, for the time being, we’re sticking to a Tuesday election because, hey, maybe you need a full day to saddle up and head for the polls. You probably don’t, though.
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- “1800 – Second Census of the United States.” US Census Bureau , www.us-census.org/states/graphics/1800.gif.
- Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 2nd Congress, 1st Session, p. 278.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “All Saints’ Day.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 17 May 2019, www.britannica.com/topic/All-Saints-Day.
- “H.R. 4183 (112th): Weekend Voting Act.” GovTrack.us, 8 Mar. 2012, www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr4183/text.
- “Impact of the Telegraph : Collection Highlights : Articles and Essays : Samuel F. B. Morse Papers at the Library of Congress, 1793-1919 : Digital Collections : Library of Congress.” The Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/collections/samuel-morse-papers/articles-and-essays/collection-highlights/impact-of-the-telegraph/.
- “The Reason Elections Are Held on Tuesdays.” Why Elections Are Held on Tuesday | Mental Floss, 23 Oct. 2018, www.mentalfloss.com/article/12901/why-are-elections-held-tuesdays.
- Statutes at Large, 28th Congress, 2nd Session, p. 721.
- Stewart, Emily. “Early Numbers Suggest Voter Turnout Soared in the 2018 Midterms.” Vox, Vox, 7 Nov. 2018, www.vox.com/midterm-elections/2018/11/7/18049518/voter-turnout-2018-midterm-elections-results.
- United States, Congress, “Population: 1790-1990.” Population: 1790-1990, US Census Bureau , 1990.
- United States, Congress, “Usual Planting and Harvesting Dates for U.S. Field Crops December 1997.” Usual Planting and Harvesting Dates for U.S. Field Crops December 1997, USDA, 1997.
- United States, Congress, “‘Too Busy’ to Vote.” “Too Busy” to Vote, US. Dept. of Commerce, 1998.
- US Census Bureau. “New Census Data Show Differences Between Urban and Rural Populations.” The United States Census Bureau, 30 Dec. 2016, www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2016/cb16-210.html.
- “Voting Rights for African Americans.” Voting Rights for African Americans – Elections – Classroom Presentation | Teacher Resources – Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/elections/voting-rights-african-americans.html.