Why Does The U.S. Hold Elections On Tuesday?

The answer dates back to the 19th century and involves buggies, the Sabbath and farming. (This piece initially aired October 23, 2012 on Morning Edition.)

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As voters all over the country mark their ballots today, we revisit a story from NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin, who wondered: Why do Americans vote on Tuesday?

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: The answer, turns out, is a little obscure. Senate Historian Don Ritchie had to dig through some historical documents so he could explain.

DON RITCHIE: In the early 19th century, basically it was a crazy quilt of elections.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: He says, the Constitutional Convention didn't get to some key details, leaving states to set their own voting dates, which meant several decades of electoral chaos.

RITCHIE: So finally in 1845, Congress passed a law.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Which set the Tuesday after the first Monday in November as Election Day.

If it were Monday, they reasoned, people would have to travel in their buggies on Sunday, traditionally a day of rest. And in a mostly farming society, Wednesday was out because that was often market day.

Tuesday was the day, and that seemed to work great.

RITCHIE: In the 1840s, elections were a big to-do. There was a lot of hoopla. There were parades. Whole families would come on wagons from the farms. People would get dressed up for the occasion.

REPRESENTATIVE STEVE ISRAEL: Well, that may have made sense in 1845, but the world has moved on. Democracies have moved on. And so Congress should move on and make it easier for people to vote.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Now that there are no buggies or market days, Democratic congressman Steve Israel of New York says Tuesday no longer works. It isn't exactly a convenient day for a lot of folks.

When the Census has surveyed people about why they don't vote, one in four people says they're too busy or their schedules don't allow them to get to the polls.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Now, many states have other options, like early voting, but not all, says Jacob Soboroff with advocacy group Why Tuesday?

JACOB SOBOROFF: In 15 states, you do not have an opportunity to vote early or with an absentee ballot or by mail, which means you have to vote on Tuesday.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Soboroff and Congressman Israel say this bars access to democracy. They say it keeps America's voter turnout chronically low. But moving Election Day from Tuesday turns out to be no easy task.

RITCHIE: We're a very traditional country and that became a tradition in a lot of ways.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Historian Don Ritchie says people can set their calendars to it, they can count on it, they're used to it. And though Congressman Israel has been introducing and reintroducing a bill to move voting to the weekend, it keeps dying in committee.

ISRAEL: I'm not giving up. I think it's just that important.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: It's not exactly a very sexy issue. It's a little bit technical.

ISRAEL: You know, some people would say it's a rather arcane issue, but I think it's a rather profound issue. I can't think of anything more important than making sure that people have an opportunity to cast their votes.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: For this election, the date is set. So, as in every presidential election since the 1840s, Tuesday is the day to vote.

Selena Simmons-Duffin, NPR News.

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