QREPORTS – Why is election day in the United States on a Tuesday in November? For the answer, let’s go back to 1845.
That year, the United States Congress passed a law that established when the presidential and legislative elections are held: the Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November” equaling “the first Tuesday after November 1”. The earliest possible date is November 2, and the latest possible date is November 8.
Before then, states were allowed to hold elections any time they pleased within a 34-day period before the first Wednesday in December, but this system had a few crucial flaws. Knowing the early voting results could affect turnout and sway opinion in states that held late elections, and those same last-minute voters could potentially decide the outcome of the entire election. Faced with these issues, Congress created the current Election Day in the hope of streamlining the voting process.
But why a Tuesday in November? The answer lies with America’s 19th-century farmers. In the 1800s, most citizens worked as farmers and lived far from their polling place. Since people often traveled at least a day to vote, lawmakers needed to allow a two-day window for Election Day.
Voting on a Tuesday, legislators decided, was the best day so that citizens could fulfill their religious duties (Saturday or Sunday), travel on Monday by horse or carriage to the nearest voting center to vote on Tuesday and return home. Wednesday was market day for farmers.
Farm culture also explains why Election Day always falls in November. Spring and early summer elections were thought to interfere with the planting season, and late summer and early fall elections overlapped with the harvest. That left the late fall month of November— after the harvest was complete, but before the arrival of harsh winter weather — as the best choice.
Criticism. Today, as in the past, most voters have to work on Tuesdays. This has led activists to promote alternatives to improve voter turnout. Alternatives include making Election Day a federal holiday or merging it with Veterans Day, allowing voting over multiple days, mandating paid time off to vote, encouraging voters to vote early or vote by mail, and encouraging states to promote flexible voting.
While some states have declared Election Day a civic holiday, some other states require that workers be permitted to take time off from employment without loss of pay. Other states have stablished Election Day as a holiday.
Also, most states allow for early voting, allowing voters to cast ballots before the Election Day. Early voting periods vary from 4 to 50 days prior to Election Day. Also, most states have some kind of absentee by mail ballot system.
In this 2020 election cycle, States are making it easier for citizens to vote absentee by mail this year due to the coronavirus. A ‘pretty staggering’ 14 million Americans have already voted in the general election, according to an analysis of voting information from the US Elections Project.
Only Congress has the power to move Election Day. While it is technically possible to change Election Day, the power to set an election date doesn’t sit in the executive office.
The Constitution gives that power to Congress, the federal Legislative Power. And it has never happened because the framers then placed further limitations that make postponing an election more trouble than it’s worth. Here’s what it would take to postpone an election.
In fact, the United States has never delayed a presidential election and only moved it for administrative reasons twice—both within the first 60 years of the country’s founding. And presidential elections have never been delayed due to a national crisis—not even the Civil War or the Great Depression.
For 2020, if Congress were to have decided that the coronavirus pandemic warrants pushing back the election date, it would have had to change the laws that govern the date of the general election, as well as the dates that states are expected to send their electoral votes to Congress. As the National Constitution Center points out, these changes would require the consent of both houses of Congress.
But while Congress would have latitude to move elections to an earlier date, there’s far less wiggle room for pushing them back. The U.S. has faithfully held its Election Day as scheduled just as it always has, whether in the face of war, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, even pandemics.