Rethinking The Tuesday Vote

U.S. presidential elections are held on Tuesdays, a tradition that dates back to 1845. For a variety of reasons, Congress had decided Tuesday would be the most convenient day for Americans to vote. But today, the most common reason given by people who don't vote is they're "too busy."

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

There have been many changes in America's politics since Peale's day, but one thing has remained the same. Sunday Soapbox blogger Jacob Soboroff explains.

JACOB SOBOROFF: In 1808, Americans were voting on paper ballots. Today, Americans use all kinds of devices including electronic machines and optical scan systems. But one thing about the American voting system has remained remarkably unchanged since the 19th century. That's the day when Americans select the president of the United States. That day is the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

Why Tuesday? I've asked dozens of members of Congress and even they, who were all elected on Tuesdays, don't have a clue. The answer isn't in the Declaration of Independence and it's not in the Constitution. On January 23rd, 1845, when there were only 26 states and before slavery had been abolished, Congress picked the day for Americans to vote for president. The United States was primarily an agrarian society. Americans, who traveled at the time by horse and buggy, needed a day or longer to get to the county seat and time to get back without interfering with the Sabbath.

So that left Tuesday and Wednesday. But Wednesday was market day in many communities. So Tuesday it was. In November, the harvest was over. Why the Tuesday after the first Monday in November? To make certain that Election Day didn't conflict with meetings of the Electoral College. So there you have it. After 163 years, Americans are still voting on Tuesdays. At least now we've got cars to get us to the polling places faster. But if gas prices keep rising, who knows? We might be forced to return to the horse and buggy.

HANSEN: Jacob Soboroff. Since Election Day was set, there have been several attempts to change the country's voting system. Change, it is thought, will increase voter participation which today ranks near the bottom of all democracies worldwide. During the primary election cycle, Jacob spoke with Barack Obama, John McCain and most of the other candidates about the day and the ways we vote. You can find links to that at npr.org. Look for Soapbox.

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