Here's the strange reason Americans vote on a Tuesday

Barack Obama. Photo: Getty Images

Australia embraces the weekend ritual of a sausage sizzle and Saturday voting when the nation goes to the polls.

But in the USA, when it comes time, every four years, to elect the de facto leader of the Western world, there’s an outdated tradition behind why it happens on a Tuesday.

America’s 171-year-old tradition is borne of the nation’s agrarian roots. Up until 1845 – Democrat James Polk was the 11th POTUS – states could hold elections over a 34-day window up to the first Wednesday in December.

Because that sometimes meant that the results in one state changed how people voted in another, Congress sat down to figure out when was the best day for a national election.

Top of their minds was not disenfranchising hardworking farmers in an economy based on the land in 1845.

So they ended up choosing the first Tuesday of November, following the first Monday, for the following reasons:

  • It had to be after the Autumn harvest
  • It had to be before the Winter snows set in
  • It couldn’t be All Saints Day (November 1), or Friday to Sunday (the Sabbath).
  • November 1 was also out because it was a popular day for reconciling your books.
  • It took a day for farmers to ride into town on a horse and buggy, then ride home again.
  • Wednesday was out because it was generally a market day.
  • So a nation where women can now vote, work and even run for president goes to the polls on a Tuesday because of a decision made for male farmers in an era before electricity, cars, the internet and even Major League Baseball.

    In 2012, as Barack Obama stood for a second term, journalist Jacob Soboroff delivered a TED talk explaining the Tuesday vote’s history. The surprising and amusing part was that he asked US political luminaries such as former presidential candidates Rick Santorum, John Kerry and Ron Paul, plus former House speaker Newt Gingrich, and they had absolutely no clue why.

    Soboroff was lobbying to change the date. Four years on, there’s still a movement pushing for change in the nation with one of the lowest voter turnouts in the world, ranking 138 out of 172 democratic nations.

    When you live in a nation with compulsory voting like Australia, voter turnout is an anathema, but the US generally gets around 60% of possible voters heading to the ballot box (the estimates are 2000, 54.2%; 2004, 60.4%; 2008, 62.3%; 2012, 57.5%). The 2014 midterm elections notoriously saw just over a third of Americans (36%) exercise their democratic voice.

    Here’s Soboroff’s video explaining it all:

    Meanwhile, Congressional Republican Steve Israel has tried annually for the last six years to change America’s voting to the weekend. His bill, the Weekend Voting Act, would give people both Saturday and Sunday to get to the polls between 10am and 6pm. It’s been defeated every time.

    The other problem Americans face is that how and when you can vote is controlled by the states and only two-thirds of them — 37, plus the District of Columbia — offer some form of pre-poll voting.

    Pre-poll voting opens between 45 and four days before the election, depending on the state. And of the states with early in-person voting, 22, plus the District of Columbia, allow some weekend pre-poll voting – 18 on Saturdays, four on Sundays, with several leaving it up to county clerks as to whether they’ll allow weekend votes. Meanwhile, 14 states still don’t have any form of pre-poll voting.

    The one other thing worth keeping in mind as Americans go to the polls tonight is that who the next president will be is not the only thing on their minds.

    They’ll also need to make decisions on a raft of legislation affecting their daily lives, from legalising marijuana to the death penalty, a carbon tax on fossil fuels, a new casino, lowering the minimum wage, payday loan interest rates and whether porn actors should wear condoms.

    There are literally hundreds of bills, including 17 in California, CBC reports.

    Alabama residents will vote on whether craft brewers will need to record the name, age address and phone number of everyone who buys take-home beer from them, while Californians have to decide whether porn actors need to wear condoms.

    In the US capital, the District of Columbia, voters will decide if they want to become America’s 51st state. They’re expected to say yes.

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