Election Day: Why We Vote When We Vote

Lots of thought went into Tuesday after the first Monday in November

Vote Today sign
Election Day Across the Nation. Sean Gardner / Getty Images

Of course, every day is a good day to exercise our freedom, but why do we always vote on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November?

Under a law enacted in 1845, the day designated as Election Day for choosing elected federal government officials is set as “the Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November” or "the first Tuesday after November 1.” This means that the earliest possible date for federal elections is November 2, and the latest possible date is November 8.

For the federal offices of President, Vice President, and members of Congress, Election Day occurs only in even-numbered years. Presidential elections are held every four years, in years divisible by four, in which electors for President and Vice President are chosen according to the method determined by each state as required by the Electoral College system. Midterm elections for members of the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate are held every two years. Terms of office for persons elected in federal elections begin in January of the year following the election. The President and Vice President are sworn in on Inauguration Day, typically held on January 20.

Why Congress Set an Official Election Day

Before Congress passed the 1845 law, the states held federal elections at their discretion within a 30-day period before the Wednesday in December. But this system had the potential to result in electoral chaos. Already knowing the election results from states that voted in early November, people in states that did not vote until late November or early December often decided not to bother to vote. The lower voter turnout in late-voting states could change the outcome of the overall election. On the other hand, in very close elections, states that voted last had the power to decide the election. Hoping to eliminate the voting lag problem and streamline the entire election process, Congress created the current federal Election Day.

Why a Tuesday and Why November?

Just like the food on their tables, Americans can thank agriculture for an Election Day in early November. In the 1800s, most citizens — and voters — made their living as farmers and lived far from the polling places in cities. Since voting required a day-long horseback ride for many people, Congress decided a two-day window for elections. While weekends seemed a natural choice, most people spent Sundays in church, and many farmers transported their crops to market on Wednesday through Friday. With those restrictions in mind, Congress chose Tuesday as the most convenient day of the week for elections.

Farming is also the reason for Election Day falling in November. Spring and summer months were for planting and cultivating crops, late summer through early fall were reserved for the harvest. As the month after the harvest, but before the snows of winter made travel difficult, November seemed the best choice. 

Why the first Tuesday after the first Monday?

Congress wanted to make sure the election never fell on the first of November. November 1st is a Holy Day of Obligation in the Roman Catholic Church (All Saints Day). In addition, many businesses tallied their sales and expenses and did their books for the previous month on the first of each month. Congress feared that an unusually good or bad economic month might influence the vote if it were held on the 1st.

But, that was then and this is now True, most of us are no longer farmers, and while some citizens still ride a horse to vote, travel to the polls is far simpler than in 1845. But is there, even now, a single "better" day to hold a national election than the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November?

School is back in session and most summer vacations are over. The closest national holiday -- Thanksgiving -- is still almost a month away, and you don't have to buy anybody a gift. But the runaway best all-time reason for holding the election in early November is one Congress never even considered in 1845. It's far enough from April 15 that we have forgotten about the last tax-day and haven't started worrying about the next one.

Should Election Day be a National Holiday?

It has often been suggested that voter turnout would be higher if Election Day was a federal holiday like Labor Day or the Fourth of July. In 31 states, including Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, New Jersey, New York, West Virginia, and the territory of Puerto Rico, election day is already a state holiday. In some other states, laws require employers to allow workers to take paid time off to vote. The California Elections Code, for example, requires that all employees who are otherwise unable to vote be given two hours off with pay at the start or end of their workday.

At the federal level, Democratic members of Congress have been trying to have Election Day designated as a national holiday since 2005. On January 4, 2005, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan introduced the Democracy Day Act of 2005, calling for the Tuesday after the first Monday in November of every even-numbered year—Election Day—to be a legally-recognized national holiday. Rep. Conyers argued that an Election Day holiday would boost voter turnout and raise the peoples’ awareness of the importance of voting and civic participation. Though it eventually gained 110 cosponsors, the bill was never considered by the full House. However, on September 25, 2018, the bill was reintroduced as the Democracy Day Act of 2018 (S. 3498) by Vermont’s Independent Senator Bernie Sanders. “Election Day should be a national holiday so that everyone has the time and opportunity to vote,” said Senator Sanders. “While this would not be a cure-all, it would indicate a national commitment to create a more vibrant democracy.” The bill currently remains in the Senate Judiciary Committee and us given little chance of passage.

What About Mail-in Voting?

On a typical Election Day, polling places are packed with people voting or waiting to vote. But during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, there are unlikely to be any more “typical” days. Due to the difficulty of maintaining social-distancing and sanitation in traditional walk-in polling places, public health experts across the nation are urging state election officials to consider developing safer ways to vote—like mail-in voting.

A crowd of people wait at a polling center to vote in the US midterm elections on November 6, 2018 in Provo, Utah.
A crowd of people wait at a polling center to vote in the US midterm elections on November 6, 2018 in Provo, Utah. George Frey/Getty Images

Several states panned to use mail-in voting in their 2020 primary elections. Oregon made mail-in ballots the state’s standard voting method in 1981. In 2000, Oregon became the first state to hold a presidential election by mail-in voting. The election saw an astounding 79% voter turnout, according to the Oregon secretary of state’s office.

On June 18, 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a law requiring the state’s election officials to mail a ballot to every registered, active voter for the November 3, 2020, general election.

Five states hold primaries using mail-in ballots as coronavirus pandemic continues
Five states hold primaries using mail-in ballots as coronavirus pandemic continues. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

However, the nationwide use of mail-in voting for presidential elections has met with opposition from politicians, who contend that it would encourage voter fraud.

In a radio interview on June 15, 2020, President Donald Trump warned that the widespread use of mail-in ballots would increase “the chance of theft, where they steal them, they hold up mailmen, they take them out of mailboxes, they print them fraudulently.” Recalling the case of a friend who had received a mail-in ballot in his long-dead son’s name, Trump added, “These mistakes are made by the millions.”

White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, who according to the Tampa Bay Times, has voted by mail in Florida 11 times since 2010, explained Trump’s concerns. In a press release, McEnany stated, “President Trump is against the Democrat plan to politicize the coronavirus and expand mass mail-in voting without a reason, which has a high propensity for voter fraud.”

In a Fox News interview on June 21, Attorney General William Barr contended that the use of mail-in ballots in presidential elections could “open the floodgates of potential fraud.”

However, several election experts, citing experience, have been skeptical of such claims. Like Oregon, California, and Florida, several states have used mail-in ballots in state and local elections for years with little verified evidence of voter fraud. In addition, U.S. military servicemembers stationed overseas have been voting exclusively by mail since World War II with no evidence of fraud.