Why Do Americans Vote on a Tuesday?

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 
Why isn't Election Day a national holiday in the United States? What other options are there? yinyang/Getty Images
Why isn't Election Day a national holiday in the United States? What other options are there? yinyang/Getty Images

In 2016, the United States ranked 26th in the world in voter participation, with only 56 percent of eligible voters casting ballots in the 2016 presidential election. That's better than the 2012 election's participation rate of 53.6 percent but embarrassingly low participation compared to Sweden's 87 percent participation rate, and barely above the voting rate in former Soviet republics such as Slovenia, which don't have a centuries-old tradition of democracy.

Even though 2020 is shaping up to be a year of higher-than-normal voter turnout in the U.S., experts are predicting about 65 percent turnout, certainly nothing like 80 percent. So what's up with that? What motivates people to either vote or abstain from doing so? Some simply don't like the candidates running in a given year, prefer to do something else that day, or else somehow forget that there's an election. But according to a Pew Research Center survey of registered voters who didn't cast ballots in 2014, the biggest single reason was schedule conflicts with work or school, which kept 35 percent of people who didn't vote from exercising their rights.


Those schedule conflicts occur in large part because of an 1845 federal law, which designated a weekday — specifically, the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November — as Election Day.

But an organization called Why Tuesday has advocated a solution that's already being used successfully in Belgium, France, Germany, India and other countries. The group wants to change voting law and hold elections at a time that's better suited for modern-day Americans. Ideally, they'd like to see Election Day held on a weekend, though making it a federal holiday during the week would be a fallback option.

Why Tuesday co-founder Norman J. Ornstein, a political scientist and author who is resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says that the current Election Day is an outmoded holdover from an age in which the country was very different from today.

Scene from mid-19th century America
Life in mid-19th century America laid the groundwork for voting practices that endure more than 160 years later.
H. Armstrong/Roberts Classic Stock/Getty Images

"The 1845 law was written to take into account the needs of a primarily agrarian society," he explains. "There wasn't any Uber, or cars or trains. Farmers had to get their products to market in wagons, which usually required a day of travel. And they needed to be home for the Sabbath, so they needed to have a day that fell between those. And people settled their accounts in those days on the first day of the month, so they couldn't vote then." Given those constraints, the first Tuesday that falls after the first Monday in November seemed like the best choice.

But as Ornstein notes, that timing isn't so convenient in a modern, industrialized, technologically advanced society, where people typically work during the day from Monday through Friday. "If you have a job, it usually means that you're working from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., or 9 p.m. to 6 p.m.," Ornstein says. And we have a system in which we have to vote near where we live, which isn't necessarily near where we work.

"That means that if you're going to vote on Election Day, you have to go to the polls first thing in the morning before you go to work," says Ornstein, "or else rush over there late at night, and hope that you can get there in time. Either way, if you run into a two-hour line, you're not going to be able to vote."

If it were up to Ornstein, he would switch Election Day to a weekend — more specifically, a 24-hour period from noon on Saturday to noon Sunday. "That way, we wouldn't run into a problem for people who keep the Sabbath," he says.

Additionally, Ornstein would hold three days of early voting, on Wednesday through Friday of the week before the Saturday-Sunday election. That would accommodate people who work on weekends, as well as those who have out-of-town travel then. (For 2020, 38 states have adopted a version of this idea, with many having two or three weeks of early voting.)

But that's not all. To make voting even easier, Ornstein would use communications advances to set up remote voting stations where people could vote, no matter where they lived in a city or state. "You could get a personalized ballot where you work," he says.

As an alternative to weekend voting, Ornstein would favor the solution of making Election Day a federal holiday, but he thinks that wouldn't work as well. "Setting up a new holiday is always an expensive proposition for the economy," he explains. "And if you piggyback it on Veterans Day, veterans are going to feel understandably shortchanged."

So what's keeping us from change? While some argue it's a subtle way of suppressing votes from people more likely to have difficulty voting — younger people, hourly workers, poor people — Ornstein suggests we've stayed with Tuesday, more out of inertia than resistance.

As he says, "We have a political system that doesn't do anything easily, and these days it has become so dysfunctional that doesn't even do critically important things that well."


Originally Published: Nov 3, 2016