It’s a pre-industrial age relic, but it’s still our relic
Why do federal elections in the United States always happen on a Tuesday?
The answer boils down to convenience for 19th century white male farmers. The fixed date for the federal elections was not laid out by the founders, forcing states to choose their own dates, albeit within a 34-day span prior to the first Wednesday in November, as per earlier rules.
Of course, this was chaotic and difficult given the scattered state-by-state dates (not to mention the prolonged suspense). It also meant that candidates’ early victories would help to create momentum for races in other states.
That changed with an act of Congress in 1845. Tired of the disparate election dates, Congress fixed the Tuesday after the first Monday in November—in case the month began on Tuesday—as the date for the federal elections. November 2 is the earliest an election can take place.
This was likely due to the fact that All Saints’ Day was on the first day of November, as well as the fact that accountants did their books on the first of the month, reported Vox. This meant that economic gains or losses might influence the outcome of an election if revealed on the same day.
November had also traditionally been election month. It coincided with the end of the harvest season, so people had free time, and the weather was usually good enough for people to travel long distances. However, the reason for the Tuesday election was more complicated than just the weather. Due to the long distances many had to travel to vote, Monday was off-limits because it would have meant traveling on the Sabbath to reach the voting booth—possibly a day away by horse and buggy. Wednesday was also off limits as it was market day. As for the other days, it’s rather unclear why they were excluded, but needless to say,Tuesday was chosen.
This relic has not changed despite the fact that the percentage of the United States that engages in agriculture has dropped from nearly two thirds of the population in the 19th century to under 3 percent today. Also, with the rise of wage labor, most people are busy on a Tuesday between nine and five. This may have dire consequences for voter participation, which has been decreasing for decades.
As GOOD has pointed out before, a national voting holiday might be in store to ensure more people have a chance to exercise their democratic rights. Another idea might simply be to move election day to the weekend, when more people might have free time, but that comes with difficulties of its own.
Until Congress acts, we’re stuck with Tuesday. It’s a pre-industrial age relic, but it’s still our relic.