By: Peter Schuetz (Articles Editor)
Regardless of political party, I think we can all agree the 2020 presidential election was a stressful mess. Despite Election Day being on November 3rd, the nation and the world did not know of Joe Biden’s apparent victory until November 7th. The slow trickle of votes in major swing states put a nation accustomed to Election Day results on edge. Many, including President Trump, insisted America should know the presidential results on Election Day. On October 30th, 2020, President Donald Trump tweeted “The Election should end on November 3rd., [SIC] not weeks later!” Although President Trump’s exclamation was unreasonable given the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, it does raise an interesting question. What is so important about a singular “Election Day” and why is it some Tuesday in November?
The United States’ is among a minority of democracies that host election day during the work week. Of the OECD nations — a group of 37 nations describing themselves as committed to democracy and the market economy — the U.S. is among 7 which have weekday voting and do not treat election day as a national holiday. This, among other policies, has led the U.S. to consistently have lower voter turnout than other democracies. When people are faced with the prospect of unpaid time off work and standing in long lines just to vote, many opt to avoid the polls. Several states have chosen to make Election Day a paid holiday, at least for state employees. But this still leaves tens of millions of voters with the hard choice of missing work to go vote. The adverse impact of a weekday election seems clear, so why did the U.S. settle on this schedule? The answer: Tuesdays in November were convenient for farmers in the 1800’s.
There was no singular election day in the United States until 1845. Since the Constitution does not specify an election day, states were allowed to hold presidential elections any time they pleased within a 34-day period before the first Wednesday in December. This approach concerned Members of Congress who thought the early voting results could affect turnout and sway opinion in states that held late elections. In 1845, Congress chose to streamline the election process by setting a singular date for all states to conduct their presidential election. They did this to avoid voters being dissuaded by early results. With the purpose of encouraging voters, Congress wanted to schedule election day when it was convenient for the most potential voters.
In the 1800’s, the United States was still a largely agrarian society. Few people lived in the city centers where voting occurred and crop patterns were vital to the everyday lives of most Americans. These factors led the legislature to choose “the Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November.” The legislature chose early November because by then the fall harvest was over, but in the majority of the nation the weather was still mild enough to permit travel over unimproved roads. Legislators settled on a Tuesday in November due to other commitments many farmers had and their limited transportation options, being, at best, a horse drawn carriage. Many farmers attended church on Sundays and sold their goods at market on Wednesdays. The Legislature decided Tuesday would be best to avoid conflicting with these important events. Choosing Tuesday also allowed farmers ample time to travel into the city, vote, and then return home before market on Wednesday.
The legislators in 1845 were rather considerate to choose a date that worked for most voters at the time, but the electorate has changed substantially since then and yet we still abide by what was most convenient for farmers in the 1800’s. Obviously the voting pool has expanded beyond solely white men, but also a majority of society no longer farms. Many voters now live in urban areas, and even more now abide by the common “work week.” Starting in the early 1900’s most businesses adopted a standardized work week, which included most daylight hours from Monday to Friday. These shared scheduling commitments are vastly different from the more flexible work week of 1800’s farmers. This is not to even mention the astronomical changes in technology since 1845. Even the most rural voters do not require a day’s travel to reach their polling place due to advanced transportation options. We are clearly a different nation, yet we still vote on a Tuesday in November. What was once a convenience, is now an active impediment to voter participation.
The 1845 legislators chose to host election day on a Tuesday in November so that voting could be convenient and so voters would not be dissuaded from participating because of early results. Times have changed, but those goals are still noble. We should do what we can to streamline the voting process for modern voters, just as legislators did in 1845.
There are many proposals to facilitate voter participation, but this piece will briefly touch on only a few. First, and most simple, election day can remain on a Tuesday in November but be made a national holiday. Voters should not have to choose between their job and the right to vote. By making election day a national holiday, the impediment of having election day in the middle of the work week can be diminished. Secondly, we can return to the voting “time range” of the past. We had a small sample of this approach for the 2020 election with the influx of early voting. These methods need to be further tuned to allow for actual change. For this the federal government may need to step in, like in 1845, to streamline this process. Currently, states vary widely in how and when people can early vote. Finally, we can utilize our advancements in technology to establish convenient, yet secure, electronic methods of voting. These proposals are in their infancy, but some advances, like blockchain, seem like a promising way to allow for digital voting. Already, other nations have begun efforts to move their elections entirely online. Hopefully, one day there can be a secure route to vote through the internet from a person’s residence. However, this digital possibility requires investment to become a reality.
When legislators in 1845 decided we should all vote on a Tuesday in November, they wanted to encourage people to vote by making it convenient and by limiting the dissuading effects of early results. Now, in the 21st century, what was once a convenience, is now an active impediment to voter participation. To reinforce the original intent of legislators in 1845, we should make adjustments to election day to make it more convenient for voters, just as they did for farmers in the 1800’s.