This Tuesday, November 6, millions of Americans will embark on the same ritual they have followed for years: Every first Tuesday after the first Monday of November, they vote.
But why is Election Day on this specific Tuesday in November?
As the Federal Election Commission previously explained, this has to do with very specific considerations that Congress had in mind back in 1845 when it set a standardized voting day:
For much of our history, America was a predominantly agrarian society. Lawmakers therefore took into account that November was perhaps the most convenient month for farmers and rural workers to be able to travel to the polls. The fall harvest was over, (remember that spring was planting time and summer was taken up with working the fields and tending the crops) but in the majority of the nation the weather was still mild enough to permit travel over unimproved roads.
Why Tuesday? Since most residents of rural America had to travel a significant distance to the county seat in order to vote, Monday was not considered reasonable since many people would need to begin travel on Sunday. This would, of course, have conflicted with Church services and Sunday worship.
Why the first Tuesday after the first Monday? Lawmakers wanted to prevent election day from falling on the first of November for two reasons. First, November 1st is All Saints Day, a Holy Day of Obligation for Roman Catholics. Second, most merchants were in the habit of doing their books from the preceding month on the 1st. Apparently, Congress was worried that the economic success or failure of the previous month might prove an undue influence on the vote!
Essentially, Congress set up a day that would most accommodate a bunch of (white, male) farmers’ working, traveling, and religious practices.
But as anyone with a cursory knowledge of history can guess, a lot has happened since this hypothetical white male farmer was the primary American voter — hence why, for many Americans, the timing of Election Day can feel very arbitrary and inconvenient.
Election Day shows how antiquated our voting system is
Consider just a few of the major events that have happened since 1845: the fruition of the Industrial Revolution (arguably the biggest event in human history), women gaining the right to vote, the end of slavery, black people obtaining the right to vote, and, most recently, the invention of the internet. In that time, the labor force went from around 60 percent farmers to below 2 percent.
These events have, obviously, impacted how people vote and, critically, when they can vote. In general, people no longer find a Tuesday in early November a convenient time to vote thanks to a lull in their farming schedules. Instead, voting on this day forces people to navigate around the standard Monday to Friday, 9 am to 5 pm schedule that dictates not just when many people work but also when many people go to school or take their kids to daycare. Election Day has gone from convenient to very inconvenient.
But state and federal governments have been slow to catch up with the times. Yes, 37 states now allow no-excuse early voting, but 13 either require an excuse (such as a work trip) or don’t allow it at all. And early voting days can be cumbersome — some places don’t allow early voting on many or any weekends, when it would be most convenient for many people with kids and busy work schedules to vote. And states may also limit early voting to weekdays during 9-to-5 office hours when people are working.
On some level, the whole setup seems ridiculous: In the 171 years since Congress set the standardized Election Day, has really nothing changed that would necessitate a new official day for voting? Why should a bunch of dead farmers who lived in a country that still allowed slavery and banned women from voting continue to guide the day that most US voters exercise their most basic right?
It’s just one of the many ways America’s voting system is outdated. Surely there has to be a better day for voting — particularly a day that’s on the weekend, when people are much more likely to have free time.
States and Congress can take many more steps to make voting easier
Beyond changing Election Day, there are many steps that all levels of government can take to make voting easier.
Here are a few possibilities, based on what some states and other places are already doing:
- Make Election Day a holiday: Short of actually changing Election Day, the US could make Election Day a national holiday so it doesn’t conflict with work responsibilities. The research is mixed on whether this would actually help, but it’s worth considering.
- Allow or expand early voting: Most states already allow no-excuse early voting, but some limit it to one or two weeks, weekdays, and, worse, 9-to-5 office hours. But a few states have proven that it’s possible to offer much more expansive voting windows; Minnesota, for example, allows early voting 46 days before Election Day. Others, like Maine and Iowa, allow voting as soon as ballots are available — which can be as early as 45 days before Election Day.
- Move some or all voting to mail: Colorado, Oregon, and Washington vote by mail, setting up systems that let people pick up or print out ballots and simply mail them in to their local voting office. There are some concerns to only allowing mail-in voting, including ballots getting lost in the mail and potentially making it easier for family members or peers to coerce a person into voting a certain way. But mail-in voting is one way that states can potentially expand voting time on the cheap, since they no longer need to hire staff to supervise polling booths.
- Automatically register people to vote, or register everyone: To this day, all but one state (North Dakota) require people to register to vote. This just adds another hurdle to voting. States could take steps to automatically register people to vote, as Oregon did. Or maybe they could do away with registration, like North Dakota has — allowing people to instead prove on Election Day that they live in the state with a state-issued ID or other identification documents.
- Relax strict voter ID laws: Over the past few years, more states have adopted strict laws that limit what IDs someone needs to show on Election Day to vote. For example, they might allow a government-issued photo ID as proof to vote, but ban a student ID or bank statement. This is supposedly to combat voter impersonation, but this kind of voter fraud is very rare anyway — between 2000 and 2014, there were only 35 credible allegations of voter impersonation, while more than 1 billion ballots were cast. So maybe these laws can be relaxed to allow more forms of ID or not require an ID at all.
- Make voting easier for people with disabilities: People with disabilities can face huge challenges when they head to the voting booth, from difficulty reading a ballot to a lack of wheelchair-accessible ramps. According to a 2013 study by Rutgers University associate professor Lisa Schur, 3 million more people would turn out to vote if Americans with disabilities voted at the same rate as otherwise similar people without disabilities. But Shur reported that previous research has found that only 27 percent of polling places in 2008 posed no potential impediments to people with disabilities.
- Online voting: This would be the most convenient form of voting possible for anyone with a computer, tablet, or phone connected to the internet. But there are enormous security risks: At a time when hackers are managing to break into all sorts of places — and even shutting down the internet for huge swaths of the country — it’s extremely risky.
All of these help address a serious problem: The US has relatively low voter turnout for a wealthy nation — meaning much of the population doesn’t have its voice heard. About 55.7 percent of the US voting-age population turned out to vote in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. Other countries reported significantly higher shares of their voting-age population turning out to vote in recent elections: 87.2 percent in Belgium, 69.1 percent in Germany, and 63.3 percent in the UK.
Some of the difference is explained by differences in policies. Unlike most wealthy countries, the US doesn’t automatically register voters (as Germany and Sweden do), and it doesn’t seek them out aggressively to push them to register (as the UK does). And the US definitely doesn’t go as far as Belgium or Australia, which make voting compulsory — an idea with some merit, as Dylan Matthews explained for Vox.
All of that, of course, falls on top of more typical voting issues, such as a lack of access to transportation to get to a polling place on Election Day or being unable to take time away from work or family life to vote.
The policy changes listed above could alleviate these issues. Some of them, particularly the expansion of voting days, cost more money. It’s going to be up to lawmakers and their constituents in different jurisdictions to decide what the right balance of costs and access to voting is.
But whatever approach one takes, it’s clear that there is a lot that could be done to make voting easier. And we can start by reconsidering when Election Day happens.