MADELEINE BRAND, host:
There's one election date that all the states share. Every four years Americans go to the polls on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November to vote for president. One group argues, though, that that date may not be the best anymore.
ALEX COHEN, host:
More on them in a moment. But first, why are elections held on that day in the first place?
Dr. MARY-JO KLINE (University of Virginia): We vote on the Tuesday after the first Monday for reasons that have had absolutely nothing to do with ideals or democracy. They're purely practical.
COHEN: University of Virginia historian Mary-Jo Kline says our forefathers chose the month back in 1845, when most Americans were farmers.
Dr. KLINE: You couldn't have your voting day in spring when they were planting. You couldn't have your voting day in summer when they were keeping crops going. You couldn't have the voting day in late summer and early fall when they were harvesting their crops. This brings you into November.
COHEN: So why Tuesday? Mary-Joe Kline says it was chosen because it took a lot longer to get places back then.
Dr. KLINE: Many Americans were churchgoing. They preferred not to travel on the Sabbath. Also, you have to remember that in the 1840s it could take you a day or two to get to the town where you cast your vote. You couldn't have the election on a weekend because people couldn't travel on Sunday. Monday was a little too close. People couldn't be sure that they could ride from their homes to a town in one day. So Tuesday was the earliest day in the week this could be done.
COHEN: But things have changed a bit since 1845. And now, with our busy working schedules, sometimes it's hard for people to get to the polls on a weekday.
Jacob Soboroff is the executive director of a group that asks the question: why Tuesday? He says America's dismal voter turned out might improve if we change when we vote.
Mr. JACOB SOBOROFF (Executive Director, Why Tuesday?): United States ranks far behind most other countries in the world in voter turnout. I saw a stat that says we ranked 139th out of 172 countries in the world. That would put us in the bottom 20 percent. So what were saying at Why Tuesday? Is, you know, that's just unacceptable. This is America - supposedly the world's most famous democracy. You know, what's going on with our election system?
COHEN: So if not Tuesday, what's your ideal solution? Are we talking about maybe more than one day, voting on the weekend?
Mr. SOBOROFF: Sure. You look around the world and you see that some of the countries with the highest turnout have elections that are either national holidays or weekend voting. Tuesday voting is not the most convenient day. Here in the United States, it's a work day.
In fact, in 15 out of our 50 states, if you cannot vote on Tuesday, you really are left without an option. There is no early voting or no excuse absentee voting in those 15 states.
COHEN: You have recently been in Iowa trying to get some of the presidential candidates to sign on with your cause. You've talked to some of these folks on video. We have some tape of you talking to Republican candidate Mike Huckabee. Let's take a listen.
(Soundbite of tape)
Mr. SOBOROFF: Can I ask you one piece of trivia about Tuesday voting? You know why we - do you happen to know why we vote on Tuesday?
Governor MIKE HUCKABEE (Republican Presidential Candidate): I'm not sure.
COHEN: It's kind of interesting that Mike Huckabee says that he didn't know why Tuesday. Is that true of most of the candidates you've spoken to so far?
Mr. SOBOROFF: Yeah, I would say - I mean, we talked to presidents, senators, congressmen, mayors, aldermen, state representatives, and the vast majority of the people that we've talked to do not know the answer to the question why do we vote on Tuesday. And whether that's just a disconnect or people turning a blind eye to the fact that today voting is not as convenient as possible for eligible Americans, I don't know the answer to that.
COHEN: You've also spoken with other candidates such as Barack Obama. What do they had to say? Are they with you?
Mr. SOBOROFF: Most of them will say, you know, I think that we should take a hard - a good hard look at making some changes here because being in the bottom 20 percent of voter turnout in the world is really not acceptable.
COHEN: So do you think there's any chance that in your lifetime - you seem like a pretty young guy - is there a chance that this might change and elections will held some other day?
Mr. SOBOROFF: I hope so. Herb Kohl, a senator from Wisconsin, has submitted occasionally - I don't know if he submitted it this congressional session - but a piece of legislation called the Weekend Voting Act that would move federal elections from the Tuesday after the first Monday in November to the first weekend in November. You know, he doesn't get a lot of traction with it, but you know, we'll see, hopefully.
COHEN: Jacob Soboroff, executive director of the group Why Tuesday? Thanks so much.
Mr. SOBOROFF: Thanks so much, Alex.
COHEN: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.