Voters are going to the polls on November 8th, that date having been decided by Congress in 1845
After what seems like a lifetime, the US presidential election will finally take place next Tuesday, November 8th. As tens of millions of Americans cast the votes that will decide whether Hillary Clinton becomes the first female president or Donald Trump the first former reality TV star one, voters will be following a ritual and rite of passage they’ve been engaging with for decades – that votes are always cast on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November. Buy why that date? Especially in a month that brings storms, rain, wind, and snow, potentially disenfranchising the electorate?
As explained by the Federal Election Commission, it’s all down to an act of the US congress in 1845.
In the 19th century, the history of the United States as a British colony and an independent nation was built on cultivation of the land. In its short history, life was centred around a predominantly agrarian society. As such, November, coming after harvest and winter-sowing seasons was believed by American lawmakers as the most convenient month for farmers and rural workers to make the often time-consuming journey to the polls when elections were taking place. Furthermore, with the exception of Alaska, November’s weather is still mostly mild enough to travel on, particularly when the election is as early in the month as possible.
Having selected the month of the year, the day of the week was the next hurdle to overcome. The choice of Tuesday is again down to travel times, with lawmakers again considering how long it would take labourers and farmers to make the journey to the polling booths. An election held on a Monday would have required some of the voters to head out from their homes on Sunday, which could have conflicted with religious ceremonies and church services. To protect the sanctity of Sunday worship, Tuesday was picked.
Then there was the issue of which Tuesday in November. Why go to the bother of making it the first Tuesday after the first Monday instead of just the first Tuesday? Arguably the two biggest influences on American politics came together here, with God and money affecting Congress’s decision. Given that November 1st is All Saints Day, formerly a holy day of obligation for practising Roman Catholics, there was a chance that this would coincide with the first Tuesday of November, ruling out many voters. At the same time, the lawmakers wanted the delay to suit merchants, who were in the habit of completing their books for the previous month on the first day of each new one. In balancing their books so close to making a decision about who should lead the country, Congress was worried that either too much red or black in their ledgers would influence a red or blue vote on polling day.
But in 2016, the decision to persist with the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November is fraught with problems; first and foremost, it was designed to suit an electorate that comprised white men at a time when the workforce was 60% agricultural. After 171 years, following the introduction of universal suffrage for men and women aged over 18 and the abolition of slavery, not to mention the fact that the agriculture is now just 2% of American labour force. Nowadays, November is increasingly inconvenient, forcing voters to work around the regular 9-to-5 working day and putting pressure on parents to get their children to and from school while servicing democracy.
But as it stands there is no political will to have Congress re-examine a historical precedent, regardless of how antiquated it has become.