Some of my friends were wondering how our somewhat eccentric election day was selected. Our children would immediately go to their phones and find the answer, but we continued to hypothesize. (My brother refers to this “old people wondering about stuff.”)
I promised that I would find the answer and put it in a column (and since I have no other bright ideas, here it is).
Originally, election days varied by state, but in 1845 a bill was passed requiring a uniform election day for all states. Initially it applied only to presidential elections, but it was later extended to Congressional elections as well.
Until then, states set voting dates at least 34 days before the Electoral College vote (at the time, the Electoral College met on the first Wednesday in December). In 1887, the Electoral College meeting was moved to the second Monday in January. In 1936, the current date of the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December was adopted. (Don’t ask me why they set that crazy date.)
These laws apply to general elections only. States can still set their own municipal and primary election dates.
In history, it is always critical to consider context.
Under the original Constitution, only white male citizens over the age of 21 were eligible to vote. Most states further restricted voting rights to white male property-owners or taxpayers (only about 6% of the population). The ratification of the 15th amendment in 1870 extended voting rights to men of all races and the 19th amendment in 1920 gave voting rights to women.
Imagine America in 1845. It was primarily an agrarian economy. Many states allowed enslaved people. Farmers and slaves spent much of the year planting, tending, and harvesting crops. It was a rural society, with larger families and fewer cities. Without electricity, days began and ended with the sun.
In those times, early November was a good choice. The harvest had ended and there was some “down time.” In most states, the weather was still relatively mild, the roads were passable, and there was enough daylight for a round-trip to the polling site.
Determining the actual day was impacted by the American culture at that time. Two days were definitely out, Sunday and Wednesday. Most Americans were devout Christians and restricted Sunday activities to family and religious gatherings. Wednesday was typically a market day. Farmers and merchants brought their produce and wares to town.
Since polling places were usually several miles away, a traveling day had to be allocated. This excluded Monday and Thursday.
Which left Tuesday as the best day.
But why the first Tuesday after the first Monday?
It has to do with the possibility of election day falling on November 1st. Some Christian denominations observed November 1st as All Saints Day. Merchants typically used the first day of the month to settle their books. To prevent voting day from falling on November 1st, Congress added “the first Tuesday after the first Monday.”
So that is how we got our election date.
Times have changed since 1845 and the first Tuesday after the first Monday is not as convenient as it once was.
Most Americans work on Tuesdays, which would make it more convenient to have election day on the weekend. Another drawback is that schools are often used as voting sites, which can put children at risk by making it easier to enter and trespass throughout the school. To ensure student safety, many Boards of Education set voting day as school holiday, which is an inconvenience to working parents.
To accommodate these drawbacks, most states have lengthened voting hours and made it easier to vote alternatively, either by mail or early voting in non-school buildings.
Changing voting day to a weekend would require a sea change impacting two religions (Jews and some Christian denominations worship on Saturday, while most Christians observe on Sunday).
Given the accommodations that states take to make voting more accessible, many decry our low voting percentage. Almost 67% of Americans voted in the 2020 presidential election, the highest percentage in the 21st century. I am not disappointed by the election turnout. I would rather have an informed voter over an uninformed one, who might feel bullied into voting.
And now my friends and I know the rationale behind our election day.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.