In 1845, Congress said that on Tuesday, November 2, 2010, overstuffed Americans must ditch work, forgo financial obligations, and wait in line to choose between an uptight fearmonger and socialist taxaholic.
OK, that’s not exactly what happened, but do you ever wonder why we vote on Tuesday? Or, more specifically, why we vote the day after the first Monday in November?
It was a contentious debate in the mid-1800s, and Election Day is once again galvanizing people toward reform. Many states now allow for early voting, but this comes with a hamster-related caveat, according to Gail Collins and David Brooks (think about voting for Rich Iott and then learning about this). Like our forefathers, people are trying to zero in on the best way to vote. In 1845, Congress convened and decided that the Tuesday after the first Monday in November made the most sense.
At the time, it seemed like a good idea. 1845 America was, by and large, an agrarian society—one where men were men, voting took days, and dark-skinned people were livestock. The elected officials of the time needed to find a convenient way for all the rich, white, male voters to get to the polls safely without infringing on their religion or business.
Personally, I like to picture muttonchopped 19th-century politicians getting out their datebooks and trying to find a good day to cast their ballots:
“Well, I say, Saturday and Sunday are just out of the question—out of the question I say! ‘Twould be a sacrilege to vote on the Sabbath! Jew and Gentile alike would be up in arms! Sacrilege I say!”
“All right, Bill, we get it, calm down.”
At the risk of overextending my fantasy (why does Bill have a British accent in my mind?), I’ll just give you the reasons why, by law, we go to the polls the day after the first Monday in November.
In 1845, many people needed a travel day to get to the polls, making it a three-day exercise. Since voting couldn’t overlap with various faiths’ Sabbaths (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday), this left Tuesday and Wednesday as options. Except Wednesday was market day; for many farmers it would be economically disadvantageous to vote.
The same farmers couldn’t abandon their crops in the fruitful harvest months. And all that horse-and-buggy travel would’ve been dangerous in the depths of winter.
Many theories also posit that Congress had to assure that Election Day never fell on the first of the month: when merchants did their books for the previous month.
Shazam! After the first Monday.
Another theory about the after-the-first-Monday rule dates back to a 1792 law. The Electoral College must complete presidential election voting within the 34-day period before their required meeting on the first Wednesday of December. By making Election Day after the first Monday in November, it always falls in that 34-day window.
Re-Shazam! After the first Monday.
That’s how, 165 years ago, a gathering of wealthy white politicians, citing then-old laws and catering to rural farmers, conspired to ruin your Tuesday.
Their approach to Voting Day may have been a masterful bit of practicality in 1845, but things have changed, making Tuesday voting obsolete, even detrimental. We no longer live in an agrarian society, and even the remaining rural areas have easy access along paved roads to their polling stations.
According to the U.S. census, the population was a little over 17 million in 1840 and about 23 million in 1850. Compare that with about 310 million Americans today. Polling places used cover vast geographic areas. Nowadays, with a denser and larger population, most people can vote only a few minutes from their home.
Many candidates pin their election hopes on voter turnout. A shift away from traditional Tuesday voting might be just what they need. A nonpartisan organization, Why Tuesday?, has been spearheading election reform since 2005. They propose alternatives like having the option to vote on Saturday in hopes of increasing voter turnout.
Their websites notes that the US is 139th globally in voter participation. Why Tuesday? doesn’t think we’re disenchanted or lazy, but that “our process of voting is based on an outdated 19th-century agrarian model that long ago lost its relevance.”
Some state experts are predicting a big turnout for the midterms. But with the fiery contention surrounding this election, why are we forced to shoehorn our God-given, patriotic duty into a weekday packed with long commutes, time at the office, and mile-a-minute kids?