Many Americans know that Election Day is a Tuesday, but few know why. Even people you’d expect to know, like politicians, have been stumped by this very question.
The answer dates back to 1845, when Congress passed a law declaring that federal elections would be held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Before that point, states could hold their presidential elections on any day within a certain 34-day window. But this arrangement began to raise concerns as travel and communication improved in the 19th century: Results from states that voted earlier could sway the outcome in states that voted later.
OK, so why Tuesday? Keep in mind that in the mid-1800s, the U.S. was largely an agricultural society. Tuesday was chosen because it was most convenient for farmers traveling by horse and buggy at the time.
“In 1845, when Congress established a national election day, it had to be a Tuesday because farmers went to church on Sunday, went to market on Wednesday, and may have needed a day, Monday, to get to their polling place,” Gil Troy — an American presidential historian and McGill University professor — told HuffPost. (And in case you’re curious, November was chosen as the month for similar reasons: It was after fall harvest was over but before the cold winter weather set in.)
But these days, Tuesdays are actually quite inconvenient for many Americans, particularly those who can’t take time off work to cast their ballots — a problem that disproportionately affects Black, Latino and lower-income voters.
In the 2016 presidential election, 14% of registered voters cited “being too busy or having a conflicting schedule” as the main reason they didn’t cast their ballots, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data. In previous elections, that percentage was even higher.
Issues also arise when a person’s polling place is far from their workplace or when there are long lines to vote during peak times — like in the morning before work or in the evening after work.
Voter turnout in the U.S. is generally quite low, trailing behind that of other developed democracies around the world, according to another Pew study. In the 2016 election, only 56% of voting-age Americans cast their ballots.
“Whether accurate or not, elected officials likely think that making it easier to vote would advantage one party … at the expense of the other party.”
– Vincent Hutchings, a University of Michigan political science professor
Interestingly, 27 of the 36 countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (made up largely of advanced democracies) conduct their national elections on the weekend. South Korea and Israel hold theirs during the week, but have made the day a federal holiday.
Because of the pandemic, more U.S. voters are exploring alternatives to voting on Election Day, such as early voting and mail-in voting. However, rules, dates and deadlines vary by state, which can be confusing to some voters.
Why hasn’t the U.S. made Election Day a weekend or federal holiday?
One major reason: It comes down to tradition, Troy said.
“It is very, very hard to change core American traditions which Americans see not only as propping up their democracy but perpetuating its legitimacy,” he said. “Change often comes slowly, subtly. Reformers will be far more successful adding a few days or options or opportunities than trying to undo Election Day.”
That’s not to say no one has tried. A number of bills — like the Weekend Voting Act — have been proposed in Congress over the years, often by Democrats. But they never go far and die in committee without a vote.
“Whether accurate or not, elected officials likely think that making it easier to vote would advantage one party — traditionally it is believed to help the Democrats — at the expense of the other party, the GOP,” said Vincent Hutchings, a University of Michigan political science professor.
“Again, it is not clear that this is demonstrably true but it is a widespread perception. So, since this effort does not receive bipartisan support, it is difficult to enact.”
Plus, some experts say moving to weekend voting could substantially increase the cost of running elections.
“Because Saturday and Sunday are Sabbath days for devout Jews and Christians, elections would probably have to be held over the two-day period — creating a need for more poll workers and a process for securing ballots overnight,” Victoria Shineman, a University of Pittsburgh political science professor, wrote in The Washington Post.
Politicians, most recently House Democrats in 2019, have also floated the idea of turning a weekday Election Day into a federal holiday, but to no avail.
A 2018 Pew survey found that the majority of Americans (65%) would be in favor of turning Election Day into a national holiday — that includes 71% of Democratic-leaning voters and 59% of Republican-leaning voters.
“It is very, very hard to change core American traditions.”
– Gil Troy, American presidential historian
Others have suggested making Veterans Day (Nov. 11), which is already a paid national holiday, Election Day.
In addition to honoring the sacrifices veterans have made, it would “remind Americans that voting is a national duty, an obligation both to one another and to the nation; and it would strengthen American democratic political culture, by way of new rituals and traditions,” Jill Lepore — a Harvard professor of American history — wrote in an essay for Politico.
While some states have made Election Day a civic holiday (though it primarily applies to public workers) and most have laws that require companies to give employees some time off to vote, none of the legislative efforts to enact these changes on a national level have been successful.
Would changes to Election Day make a difference in voter turnout?
It’s hard to say. In theory, it seems that any move that would make it easier for Americans to vote would increase participation. But experts say improving voter turnout is a complicated issue that no single “silver bullet” strategy can solve.
Countries that have weekend or holiday elections do tend to have better turnout overall. However, those numbers may be attributed to a combination of factors — not solely because their elections occur on non-work days.
Consider this: Even if Election Day were moved to a weekend or turned into a national holiday, retail and service industry employees would still need to work.
“The types of workers least likely to reap the benefits of a federal holiday are those who already struggle to vote,” Shineman noted.
Such a change would mostly benefit white-collar workers instead of the lower-income workers it’s designed to help.
“If you make election day a federal holiday, you’ll have all the people who work in these types of jobs still having to work, being inundated with customers who have the day off and they won’t have child care because the schools will be closed,” Suzanne Lucas, who previously worked in human resources, wrote in a piece for Inc.com. “Some businesses may close, but their hourly paid employees will either have to use a PTO day or not get paid.”
While making Election Day a national holiday or moving it to the weekend would by no means be a cure-all, it could be used in conjunction with other strategies like automatic voter registration (nearly 87% of registered voters participated in the 2016 election), restoring voting rights for formerly incarcerated people and removing other barriers such as voter ID requirements and voter roll purges that often disenfranchise people of color.
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