Imagine: It’s Election Day, 1840, and your whole family is on a wagon. Pa looks like a proper country gentleman in his best and only suit; Ma has donned her finest dress (though she will not get a chance to cast a ballot in her lifetime). You and your siblings giggle as the wagon bounces toward a cheering mob of drunk, top-hatted men gathered in argument around the county seat. After a mere ten hours of horse-drawn travel, it’s time to see democracy in action.
Elections used to look a lot different in America. In a nation where many eligible voters (see: land-owning men) lived on distant country farms accessible only by tedious horse and buggy rides, a federal election was as much a social opportunity as a democratic privilege. A family taking the long ride to the county seat knew they would run into friends there. People dressed to impress. Parades paraded. Men, often coerced to vote with free booze, celebrated Election Day as a public holiday. Voting was, in a word, awesome.
But it was also chaos. Between 1788 and 1845, states pretty much decided their own voting dates, leading to a “crazy quilt of elections” at all times of the year in different parts of the county, Senate Historian Don Ritchie told NPR. When Congress finally decided to pick a single day on which to hold all presidential elections in 1845, they kept the average farmer’s long, horse-drawn commute in mind. Find out the bizarre things the government actually has the power to do.
November was an ideal month, as the harvest would be complete and the harshest winter storms yet to descend. So, why Tuesday? Assuming it took the average family a day to travel from the farmstead to the county seat, a day to vote (and possibly party), and a day to return home, Congress knew their Election Day needed to account for three days of lost work. Sunday was the Sabbath, so that knocked Saturday and Monday off the list right away. Wednesday, typically, was market day—and if you’re a 19th-century farmer, you can’t afford to miss market day. Congress, therefore, settled on Tuesday—the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November—to give agrarian families ample time to make it to the polls and back between the Sabbath and market day. And that is why, to this day, we vote on Tuesday.
Odd as it sounds, the Tuesday system worked great for our farmer ancestors. In 1848, the first federal election that took place on the same day in every state, 72.7 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots. By 1860, 81.2 percent of voters voted—the second-highest turnout ever.
Today is a different story. Over 170 years after Tuesday became the official Election Day, America remains tied to an antiquated system that many believe is responsible for chronically low voter turnout. Results from the 2012 presidential elections, in which an estimated 57.5 percent of eligible Americans voted, don’t paint a pretty picture. The 2016 turnout wasn’t all that different either—an estimated 55 percent of eligible voters turned out to the polls, a 20-year low, according to CNN. One popular explanation for the dismal numbers is simple timing: people have trouble getting to the polls in the middle of a weekday.
“If you’re a single mother or father, student with long hours or someone—like so many Americans—with two or more jobs, you’re going to have a hard time voting in the 14 states which have in-person Tuesday voting as the only option,” writes Why Tuesday, a nonprofit aimed at driving voter turnout. “U.S. Census data has long indicated the #1 reason voters gave for not making it out to the polls was ‘too busy/couldn’t get time off to vote.’ In 2010, 27 percent of nonvoters gave this answer.” This archival essay shows us that democracy “demands change.”
One solution? Officially move Election Day to the weekend, like many democratic nations with higher voter turnout than America already have. A change to our voting tradition would be disruptive, but not impossible.
In the meantime, what can you do to improve voter turnout in America? Rock the Vote has a list of ways you can help, but the bottom line is this: on November 5th, go vote. It’s what your drunk, horse-riding ancestors would have wanted. Next, here are the answers to the 15 political questions you’re too embarrassed to ask.