Election Day 2010: Federal elections are always on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, just like it has been since 1845 – even though a weekend vote could boost turnout. Why is that?
Matthew Putney/The Waterloo Courier/AP
Why are U.S. elections held on Tuesday?
We’re not asking why the US holds elections in the first place. We’re asking why everybody goes to the polls on that particular day of the week. Did the Founding Fathers think Tuesday was lonely and needed the attention? Is it a secret Masonic thing – if we voted on Thursdays, would the pillars of the National Archives crumble, revealing the awful truth behind Nicolas Cage’s film career?
Nope. It turns out that elections are held on Tuesdays so that you’d have enough time to ride Dobbin from your farm to the county seat.
In its infancy, the US had no set day for national elections. From 1792 until 1845, Congress allowed states to hold their polls any time in the 34 days before the first Wednesday in December, which was the day the Electoral College met.
Eventually fraud became rampant. Political parties organized gangs of supporters to move from state to state to vote in close elections. So in 1845, Congress established a uniform Election Day for the offices of president and vice president – the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November.
For a society in which most people lived on farms, November was a good month to vote. The harvest was in, and snow hadn’t yet closed the roads. Why Tuesday? Records of lawmaker debate show that officials thought Sunday wouldn’t work, because many people were in church. Monday wouldn’t work, because most polling places were in county seats, and folks from outlying areas could not always get there in time.
Tuesday was the earliest day everybody could make it into town. So Tuesday it was. Congress similarly standardized congressional elections in 1872.
Today, of course, the biggest transportation problem facing many voters is how to enter polling places into a GPS. So some reform groups, such as WhyTuesday.org, are pushing for Saturday voting as a means to increase turnout.
San Franciscans will vote this week on an initiative that would open city polling places on the Saturday before the 2011 municipal elections. If it passes, maybe we’ll get to see if such a change would really draw more people to the polls.
[Editor's note: The original subhead of this story was changed to account for the fact that the Monday before Election Day must be in November.]