Why do we vote on a Tuesday?

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Ari Wubbold, October 26, 2012

If someone were to ask you what day of the week you thought the greatest number of Americans could take time off to vote, which day would you choose? Probably Saturday or Sunday, I’d wager. We have more free time on weekends; what with work, school, and myriad other obligations during the week. So why then do we vote on a Tuesday? The answer has to do with the culture of antebellum America.

In 1845, when Tuesday was selected as the official voting day for presidential elections by the 2nd session of the 28th Congress, America was a vastly different country than it is now. For example, steam-powered manufacturing had not yet had its Civil War boom, meaning that for many the horse-drawn carriage was the most efficient means of transport. In addition, we were primarily an agrarian society that set our schedules according to planting and harvesting - as well as religious - markers. This meant that not only was getting to the country seat to vote a real undertaking (usually requiring several days for travelling), but there also were few viable calendar windows for such a trip. Tuesday was ultimately settled upon through a process of elimination.

Because travel was forbidden on the Sabbath, Monday wouldn’t work due to the distances many had to go just to get to the polls, and Wednesday, as market day, was no good. Therefore, Tuesday was selected as the “first convenient day of the week.”

Et viola! Tuesday voting. Yet this does not answer the question of why we still vote on a Tuesday. After all, not only have we advanced technologically to allow for faster travel, but we have also updated our voting system to allow for more convenient participation (here’s looking at you, vote-by-mail). So why the antiquated civic ritual (especially given the scheduling challenges posed by the modern workweek)? You would think that a nation that ranks 138 out of 169 for voter turnout (just behind the Republic of Armenia)* would encourage any reforms that might boost involvement. Well, it’s not for a lack of trying.

On November 8, 1997, Sen. Herbert “Herb” Kohl (D-WI) introduced a bill to the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration of the 105th Congress called the Weekend Voting Act (S. 1463), which would amend section 1 of title 3, United States Code, by replacing “Tuesday next after the first Monday” with “first Saturday and Sunday after the first Friday.” Done and done…or maybe not. This bill would go on to wither on the committee vine, as would re-introduced versions in the 107th, 109th, 110th, 111th, and 112th Congresses. So much for that.

However, with early voting and absentee ballots, one might ask, isn’t Tuesday simply the voting deadline at this point - not the primary voting day – making all of this pointless? Not exactly. In fact, 15 states do not allow early voting (Virginian and Pennsylvania, to name a couple) meaning that unless you are voting absentee, Tuesday is your only option. With work, school, and who knows what else on your plate, how convenient is that?

*According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).