Tuesday elections made sense in 1845 – but not today

November 6, 2012 

Today is Tuesday. It’s Election Day. Why?

The United States ranks dead last among the G8 nations – eight of the world’s largest economies – in voter turnout, and five of those countries vote on the weekend.

Countries voting on the weekend include Germany (80.2 percent), France (67.3), Japan (68.7) and smaller nations, such as Thailand (82.1). The comparable U.S. turnout from 1945 to 2001 is 47.7 percent.

According to U.S. Census data, the primary reason people give for not voting is “too busy/couldn’t get time off to vote.”

It makes sense. Eligible voters are working on Tuesdays. They are going to school, looking for jobs, starting businesses and generally going about their busy day-to-day lives.

It’s time to move Election Day to Saturday and make it more convenient for Americans to vote.

Moving the day on which we vote does not require a constitutional amendment, only a bill passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the president. In fact, such a bill has been introduced to federal lawmakers several times, including this year.

Two states conducted an experiment this year with positive results. South Carolina and Louisiana held their 2012 presidential primary elections on the weekend, and both attracted record-high voter turnouts.

That small test and the long-time experience of other nations suggest more Americans would vote if Election Day were moved to the weekend. So, why do we vote on Tuesdays?

The framers of the U.S. Constitution did not specify any particular day for elections. For 53 years, from 1792 to 1845, the states decided individually what day its citizens would vote. They could choose any date within the 34 days prior to the meeting of the Electoral College (which raises another issue entirely) on the first Wednesday in December.

But in 1845, Congress decided that all states should vote for president and vice president on the same date, and they chose the first Tuesday, following the first Monday, in November. Why?

The United States was primarily an agrarian society in 1845. Farmers needed a day to travel by horse and buggy to the county seat to vote. Sunday was the Sabbath, and farmers needed to get home by Wednesday for market day. Tuesday became the logical choice.

It made sense in 1845, but not today. Americans live in a completely different world now, which we have acknowledged by changing the dates of many other national holidays. For convenience and commerce, for example, we have moved Columbus Day, Presidents Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day to Mondays.

There are plenty of other things wrong with how Americans vote.

In many states, people still stand in line for many hours to cast their ballot at too few and inconveniently located polling stations. And that leads to potential manipulations, such as the voter identification laws some red states attempted to enact this year.

Our state’s system of mail-in ballots works well and encourages a voter turnout higher than the national average. Such a system should be applied nationally.

But those are bigger fish to fry. Moving Election Day to the weekend is an easy and effective method of engaging more eligible voters in the democratic process.

Congress should act now, before the 2016 presidential election.

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