The History of Election Day and Why We Vote on Tuesday

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Every four years, on the Tuesday after November’s first Monday, American citizens will walk, drive, bus, train to their designated voting polls across the nation. Perhaps they’ll buy a cupcake from a nearby bake sale, some will leave with various congratulatory buttons and stickers, and, somewhere along the way these eligible voters will collectively decide on the next president of the United States along with multiple ballot measures and local candidates.

The polls open tomorrow. Now that the big date is just around the corner, it’s time to use this as an opportunity to start asking some useful questions. Let’s start with American tradition. More specifically: Out of all the days of the week to vote, why did US lawmakers decide Tuesday would be the uniform date for their citizens to choose presidential electors?

Election Day is as symbolic a day for American democracy than any other. Beginning in 1792 states were allowed to hold their presidential elections any day within the 34-day period before the first Wednesday in December. That first Wednesday was the day when all of the electors in each state would convene and choose a President and Vice-President. Yet, at face value, the reason for the Tuesday vote seems like a pretty practical one; a product of the realities of 1845 America; very much grounded in the history during which the law was passed.

Antebellum America was primarily an agrarian society. It was not out of the ordinary for plantation proprietors and rural farmers to travel for an entire day, steering their horse-drawn vehicles along carriage roads to the nearest county seat to cast their vote. Then they’d need an entire day to return to their homes.

Since Sunday was a day for church and rest travelling for a Monday vote was not realistic. Congress decided that eligible citizens could take the first Monday of November off to travel, vote on Tuesday, and then take the rest of the day to return to their farms.

In its most literal form, yes. There’s some romance lacking behind the Tuesday election. The real symbolic weight here rests in the intention, not on the day itself. America’s decision-makers required a national voting day because it speaks to the heart of American democracy. It hits at the crux of the American dream: all are created equal.

Tuesday was the day most convenient for every class, every heritage, and all industries. It did not favor the city dwellers. It is about having the highest possible turnout on Voting Day. It was about anyone who wanted a say in their nation’s political destiny a chance to speak up.

While “Tuesday” may not be as important as it once was –what with the introduction of early voting and absentee ballots— tomorrow that sentiment still rings true. Tomorrow America votes.