Everyone has heard the grade school story of why we have elections on the first Tuesday in November. It was after harvest time, market days were on Wednesday, and people didn’t want to have to travel on Sundays to get to the polls — that naturally left only Tuesdays or Fridays as the option, with Fridays occasionally being holidays for many religious adherents.
But reviewing the Congressional Globe, the written record of the 23rd through 42nd Congresses paints a much, much darker picture — with our leaders of the growing Republic facing many of the same problems we still see today. In today’s political world, the difficulties our nation has with consistent voter participation and balloting troubles needs to be addressed by the adoption of a national holiday for Election Day — a simple answer to many Election Day problems.
1844: A Time of Political Upheaval
When Congress reconvened in December 1844, it was after a hard fought and bitter presidential election that had been fought along the lines of the expansion of the Union and its effects on slavery.
Strangely, both the North and South overwhelmingly supported President Polk, in a somewhat short-sighted move that would allow Texas to enter as a slave state — the central states swung for Henry Clay. This move ensured the continuation of President Tyler’s plans for the annexation of Texas.
Congress immediately faced three very tough issues, and while these seem independent from each other, they were inextricably linked at the core — the annexation of Texas, changes to the naturalization laws, and the manner of election of the president.
The difficulties our nation has with consistent voter participation and balloting troubles needs to be addressed by the adoption of a national holiday for Election Day...
Before this time, the presidential election took place over a 34-day period before the first Wednesday in December — the particular dates were set by the individual states.
The flaws of this system were apparent. Later voting states had an upper-hand in organization, outcome knowledge, and to a degree, even swaying the election.
America was becoming bigger, the newly admitted states were increasing in size with every addition — a uniform method of voting made sense in these larger land area states.
But even more important, the slave/free divide was becoming so great that advanced knowledge of the outcomes of elections was creating a fear of Election Day violence.
Immigration was also becoming a hot-button issue for Election Day politics as well, with several southern representatives accusing New York City of ballot box stuffing by having 3,000 foreigners ‘metamorphosed into American citizens a few days before said election day, and effecting the dirty purpose, the most enormous of frauds had been perpetuated.’
This, of course, was the subject of much argument and rancor, but the belief of voter fraud from immigrants was a motivation for amending the naturalization laws, extending the time period necessary for an immigrant to become a citizen.
Challenges to elections were becoming more common, with Florida’s first election as a state being challenged even as the new representatives were seated in 1845 — uniformity was seen as the only answer to the problems that kept popping up.
After much wrangling, the Congress would establish the new nationwide date for elections after 1844 as the first Tuesday, following the first Monday in November (November 1st is never Election Day) — but the reasons were clear: the ever expanding land area of the Union, the problems with non-uniform elections, voter fraud and challenged elections, and immigration.
2016 and beyond: Modern Day Problems Demand Modern Solutions
We don’t live in an agrarian society that resembled anything like the make-up of the Republic in 1844, but we still have the widespread beliefs of voter fraud and immigration reform.
Most people live in towns and cities, most have daytime jobs other than farming, and overwhelmingly, as evidenced by the long lines on election night, people prefer to vote during ‘non-work’ hours.
While federal employment laws preserve the rights of voters, it’s time to think about making Election Day a national holiday as a means to increase voter turnout and decrease balloting problems nationwide.
Most people cannot take the time away from their jobs to volunteer on Election Day as poll workers — neighbors helping neighbors vote is the single best way to eliminate voter fraud of all types.
Voting in the U.S. is an exceptionally decentralized process, with voting precincts covering very small geographic areas. Increased volunteering at the polls, and to a degree even certified election observers, helps to ensure that those outside of the region aren’t trying to influence the election.
Likewise, the major parties are always in need of more volunteers to help people get to the polls. As a nation that only has about 55 percent participation, we need all the get-out-the-vote efforts we can get.
But in a world of 9-to-5 jobs with limited paid-time off, an extra day off is a burden to most people.
The lines at poll closing time are a worse problem. Each year dozens of reports of long lines at poll closing times hit the media.
A national holiday is the sensible answer to all of these problems — it gives people more time to vote, it gives people a chance to engage in the process, and it gives Americans the chance to do what we do best — peacefully hand over power every election cycle.
Without the need for a travel day, a Monday election makes the most sense — still honoring the religious days of all Americans, while creating a three-day weekend for Americans to both enjoy and engage in the political process.
An Election Day holiday also places emphasis on the importance of the institution. We celebrate Memorial Day and other 3-day weekends with gusto in America — why not include the one day that ensures freedoms for future generations?
But in the end, people need to get to the polls and vote, something we aren’t too good at doing as Americans.
While a national holiday might eventually become just ‘another day off’ for millions of Americans, it could also serve as the modern springboard for increased voter participation — maximizing the rights of all citizens to vote.