Why Is Election Day on a Tuesday in November?

The Logic of Election Day's 19th Century Roots

Election Day 1864
Election Day 1864 in a poor neighborhood of New York City. London Illustrated News/public domain

There are constant debates about how to get more people to vote, and one nagging question has turned up for decades: Why do Americans vote on the first Tuesday in November?

And why did anyone ever think that would be practical or convenient?

Federal law in the United States since the 1840s has required that the presidential election be held every four years on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. In modern society, that seems like an arbitrary time to hold an election. Yet that specific placement on the calendar made a lot of sense in the 1800s.

Prior to the 1840s, the date when voters cast ballots for president would be set by the individual states. Those various election days, however, almost always fell in November.

Why November?

The reason for voting in November was simple: Under an early federal law, the electors for the electoral college were to meet in the individual states on the first Wednesday of December. According to a 1792 federal law, the elections in the states (which would choose the electors) had to be held within a 34-day period before that day.

Beyond meeting legal requirements, holding elections in November made good sense in an agrarian society. By November the harvest would have been concluded. And the harshest winter weather would not have arrived, which was a major consideration for those who had to travel to a polling place, such as a county seat.

In a practical sense, having the presidential election held on different days in different states was simply not a major concern in the early decades of the 1800s. Communication was slow. News traveled only as fast as a man on horseback or a ship could carry it.

Back when it took days or weeks for election results to become known, it really didn't matter if states held elections on different days. The people voting in New Jersey, for example, couldn't be influenced by knowing who had won the presidential balloting in Maine or Georgia.

The Influence of Railroads and the Telegraph

In the 1840s, that all changed. With the building of railroads, mailing letters and transporting newspapers became much speedier. But what really disrupted society was the emergence of the telegraph.

With news traveling between cities within minutes, it suddenly seemed obvious that election results in one state might influence voting that was yet to occur in another state.

As transportation improved, there was another fear. Voters could conceivably travel from state to state and participate in multiple elections. In an era when political machines such as New York's Tammany Hall were often suspected of rigging elections, that was a serious concern.

In the early 1840s, Congress decided to establish a standardized date for holding presidential elections across the country.

Election Day Was Standardized in 1845

In 1845 Congress passed a law establishing that the day for choosing presidential electors (in other words, the day for the popular vote that would determine the electors of the electoral congress) would be every four years on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

That formulation was chosen to fall within the time frame determined by the aforementioned 1792 law.

Making the election the first Tuesday after the first Monday also ensured that the election would never be held on November 1, which is All Saints Day, a Catholic holy day of obligation. There is also a legend that merchants in the 1800s tended to do their bookkeeping on the first day of the month, and scheduling an important election on that day might interfere with business.

The first presidential election held in accordance with the new law was held on November 7, 1848. In that year's election, the Whig candidate Zachary Taylor defeated Lewis Cass of the Democratic Party and former president Martin Van Buren, who was running on the ticket of the Free Soil Party.

Why a Tuesday?

The choice of a Tuesday is most likely because elections in the 1840s were generally held at county seats, and people in outlying areas would have to travel from their farms into town to vote. Tuesday was chosen so people could begin their travels on a Monday and thus avoid traveling on the Sunday Sabbath.

Holding important national elections on a weekday seems anachronistic in the modern world, and it's no doubt true that Tuesday voting tends to create obstacles and discourages participation. Many people can't take off work to vote (though in 30 states you can), and they may find themselves waiting in long lines to vote in the evening. 

News reports that routinely show citizens of other countries voting on more convenient days, such as Saturday, tend to make Americans wonder why the voting laws can't be changed to reflect the modern era.

The introduction of early voting procedures in many American states and the adoption of mail-in voting in recent elections has addressed the problem of having to vote on a specific weekday. But, generally speaking, the tradition of voting for the president every four years on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November has continued uninterrupted since the 1840s.