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Why Is Election Day on a Tuesday?

Every election year in the U.S., Americans are inundated with messages telling them to make a voting plan. Know your polling place, know how you will cast your ballot, and if you’re going in person, when and how you’re going to get there and what your legal rights are when it comes to taking time away from work. But there’s one very simple reason why Election Day is a challenge for millions of voters: It always falls on a Tuesday.

The Rural Plurality

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Why does the United States do this, and who was it supposed to help? As with many American explanations, the root is agrarian interests. Farmers may not actually be responsible for the scourge of Daylight Saving Time (in fact, they actively lobbied against national implementation of DST after World War I), but when Congress sought to codify the federal election system, they had to think about the needs of a mostly rural population. At the time, farmers made up roughly 69% of the country’s labor force. For some who lived far from a polling site, it could take a full day or more to travel by buggy or horse into town to cast a ballot; traveling on a Sunday would disrespect the Sabbath, Wednesdays through Friday were traditionally market days, and they couldn’t interrupt the spring or summer planting season or the fall harvesting season. Somehow Tuesday became the choice for legislators, and in January 1845, Congress established that presidential elections would take place on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

At the time, there were only 26 states in the Union (Florida and Texas would join later that year), and before the 1845 Act, states were in charge of selecting their own election days. This proved disastrous — imagine the presidential primary season, where some states vote weeks or months before the other states and the results are known. When this happened during a general election, like in 1840 when the range of voting dates went from October 30 when Ohio and Pennsylvania went to the polls through November 19 with Tennessee and Vermont wrapping up voting, voters could see how their candidate fared in an earlier state and either come out in droves to push their candidate from behind … or they could find means to commit voter fraud. Choosing a single day for presidential elections was meant to remedy this problem, and Congress later followed suit. The House of Representatives moved its election day to that same Tuesday in 1872, and the Senate joined after the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913.

Our Election Day was set more than two decades before the events of Little House on the Prairie. It was before even the Pony Express, much less the transcontinental railroad, flight, or internet. Today, it puts America at odds with much of the world — the majority of countries vote on Sunday, including most of Europe and Central America and all of South America. Some states, such as Kentucky, Louisiana, and the Virginias, have made Election Day a holiday for state workers, but a 2019 proposal by House Democrats to make it a national holiday was shot down by Senate Republicans.

Election Day Holiday

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Interestingly, the idea of Election Day as a holiday is extremely popular with people across the political spectrum. According to the Pew Research Center, 59% of Republicans and 71% of Democrats support making it a national holiday. Back in 2001, the National Commission on Federal Election Reform recommended that Election Day be merged with Veteran’s Day (which is always November 11, Armistice Day); this could spare the expense of adding another federal holiday to the calendar while encouraging citizens to honor the sacrifices of the nation’s veterans by voting.

While a federal holiday isn’t in the cards in 2020, millions of Americans have solved their Election Day dilemma by voting early or by absentee ballot — 43 states and the District of Columbia already allow early voting in person, and two-thirds of states allow voters to cast an absentee ballot without offering an excuse.

First Tuesday Voting

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So, what happens if a person doesn't vote early and lives in a state that doesn’t give residents the day off to vote? It varies, but in more than half of all states, employers are legally required to allow workers some time off to vote, and many others have laws designed to keep employers from intimidating or influencing workers when it comes to elections. Workplace Fairness, a worker advocacy group, has a comprehensive list of state laws on the topic. It’s far from perfect, but short of a federally approved Election Day holiday or a Congressional act to move the day entirely to reflect the industry and society of today, the best approach is to be prepared. Do research, make a plan, and know your rights.

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