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Why Do We Vote On Tuesdays?

Gillian Blease
Getty Images

Nothing says how hard tradition is to break than the day Americans vote — Tuesday.

It's inconvenient. Most people work on Tuesdays and polls are mostly open during business hours. They're most crowded early in the morning before people leave for work and in the early evening after work and just before they close. It's not exactly like polling places have retail hours; they're more like extended banking hours.

So why does America do this? Like most things, the practice goes back a long time and hasn't caught up to modern ways. The tradition actually was created for convenience — when America was a mostly agrarian society.


When did all this begin?

1845 — The Tuesday after the first Monday in November was established for presidential elections

1875 — Adopted for electing U.S. House members

1914 — Applied to electing senators when the direct election of them began

Why Tuesday — and in November?


Convenience, believe it or not. In order to understand the day chosen, you need to understand 19th century America. Most Americans were farmers, devoutly Christian and needed time to travel, because roads weren't paved, and polling locations weren't widespread like today.

Sundays were out because of church. People had to get to the county seat to vote, and automobiles weren't an option — they weren't a factor until the early 20th century. The Interstate Highway System wasn't authorized until the mid-1950s.

As for why November — spring was planting season, summer was taken up with working the fields and tending the crops, but by November, the fall harvest was over. And in most of the country, the weather was still mild enough to permit travel over those unpaved roads.

OK, but why the first Tuesday after the first Monday?

Lawmakers wanted to prevent Election Day from falling on the first of November for three reasons — religion, business and, of course, politics:

(1) Religion: Nov. 1 is All Saints Day, a holy day of obligation for Roman Catholics that is also observed by some orthodox Christians and some Protestants

(2) Business: Most merchants were in the habit of doing their books from the preceding month on the 1st;

(3) Politics: Members of Congress were worried that the economic success or failure of the previous month might prove an undue influence on the vote.

Yes, even back then, it was the "economy, stupid."

Has anyone tried to change this?

Yes. A group called Why Tuesday has been asking elected officials around the country for years why the U.S. votes on Tuesdays and advocates for moving it to the weekend.

The group cites America's low voter participation compared to other countries. It was founded in 2005 by civil rights icon and former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, congressional scholar Norm Ornstein and Bill Wachtel, a New York attorney and head of The Drum Major Institute, a liberal think tank.

Some members of Congress have taken up the mantle. Reps. Steve Israel of New York and John Larson of Connecticut have repeatedly introduced the Weekend Voting Act, which would move voting from Tuesday to Saturday and Sunday. Polls would be open from 10 a.m. Saturday until Sunday at 6 p.m.

But the act has died in committee on several occasions over the past decade.

Of course, there's always politics at play. Israel, who is retiring, is the former head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, or DCCC, the group in charge of getting Democrats elected to the House. Increased voter participation could help Democrats, because the lowest propensity voters — young voters, lower-income voters, Hispanics and other nonwhites — are pillars of the party. That could explain Republican reluctance to go along.

So for now, Election Day remains the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, though early voting has expanded the traditional definition of Election Day. This year, more than a third of voters are expected to cast a ballot early.

Some of the preceding was adapted from what your author wrote for the 2014 Election Briefing Book for PBS NewsHour. Here's a video explainer:

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