Why Is Election Day on a Tuesday in November?

The logic of the date has 19th century roots

A voting both

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There are continuing debates about how to get more Americans to vote, and one nagging question has turned up for decades: Why do Americans vote on the first Tuesday in November? Did anyone think that was be a practical or convenient date? Would another date encourage more voting?

U.S. federal law 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.

Why November?

Before the 1840s, the dates when voters cast ballots for president were set by the individual states. Those various election days, however, almost always fell in 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 choose the electors who officially elect the president and vice president) had to be held within 34 days before that day.

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

Holding the presidential election on different days in different states wasn't a major concern in the early decades of the 1800s when news traveled only as fast as a man on horseback or a ship could carry it and it took days or weeks for election results to become known. The people voting in New Jersey, for example, couldn't be influenced by knowing who had won the presidential balloting in Maine or Georgia.

Enter the Railroads and Telegraph

In the 1840s, that all changed. With the building of railroads, transporting mail and newspapers became much speedier. But what really changed society was the emergence of the telegraph. With news traveling between cities within minutes, it became obvious that election results in one state might influence voting that was still open in another state.

As transportation improved, there was another fear: Voters conceivably could travel from state to state, participating 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. So in the early 1840s, Congress set a single date for holding presidential elections across the country.

Election Day Established in 1845

In 1845, Congress passed a law establishing that the day for choosing presidential electors (the day for the popular vote that would determine the electors of the Electoral College) would be every four years on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. That was in line with the time frame set by the 1792 law.

Making the election the first Tuesday after the first Monday also ensured that the election would never be held on Nov. 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 in accordance with the new law was held on Nov. 7, 1848, when Whig candidate Zachary Taylor defeated Lewis Cass of the Democratic Party and former President Martin Van Buren, running as the Free Soil Party candidate.

Why a Tuesday?

The choice of 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, avoiding travel on the Sunday Sabbath.

Holding important national elections on a weekday seems anachronistic in the modern world, and there's a concern that Tuesday voting creates obstacles and discourages participation. Many people can't take off work to vote (though in 30 states, you can), and they might 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 and mail-in ballots in many American states has addressed the problem of having to vote on a specific weekday. But generally speaking, the tradition of voting for president every four years on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November has continued uninterrupted since the 1840s.