Much has been written about the effect of bad weather on Presidential Election Day turnout in general and whether it benefits one party or another. My colleague, Steve Tracton, nicely addressed these issues in his October 30, 2008 post, “Weathering the Election.”
As it was then, the country seems to be at a political crossroads once more. Could the weather again be a major factor in Election Day turnout? A new survey conducted by The Weather Channel confirms earlier studies: bad weather seems to deter undecided voters more (35%) than either Democrats (27%) or Republicans (20%) from going to the polls. Clearly, Republicans seem to benefit from a stormy Presidential Election Day.
Yet the latest weather maps show relatively quiet weather across much of the U.S. this Election Day, perhaps giving a slight edge to Democrats.
Mildly inclement weather could affect two key swing states in the Presidential race:
* Intermittent, scattered showers and a few thundershowers could fall in the northern half of Florida, but widespread heavy rain is not likely.
* Mainly light rain showers are likely in Wisconsin, which may mix with snow in the northern part of the state. Snow accumulation is not expected.
While a nuisance, weather conditions in these states are unlikely to markedly deter voters. As such, weather on Election Day probably won’t have a meaningful effect on voter turnout and key races.
But if we consider rainy, windy and/or unusually cold weather just prior to Election Day, the potential for lower voter turnout is greatly increased in some areas in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast.
Despite tranquil weather forecast for Tuesday in parts of New Jersey and New York, some voters in the affected areas will be challenged just to find their re-located polling places –let alone get to them, due to a lack of gas, power, and in some cases, communication.
But the Congressional races in this area aren’t particularly close and - at the Presidential level - lean strongly Democratic. So Sandy probably won’t affect key races there either.
Why Election Day is in early November
Some may wonder why we have our Presidential Election Day in early November in the first place, when the prospects of stormy weather are gradually increasing.
It all stems from our agrarian roots, when a much larger percentage of the population was composed of farm workers. To get to the polling places—usually the county seat--they often had to travel great distances. Even during tranquil weather, the journey could be treacherous, sometimes requiring overnight travel in horse-drawn buggies on unpaved roads. As a result, great consideration was given to when such travel could best be accomplished.
So it was really a no-brainer; because Election Day would have to be held after the harvest, when farm workers were least needed, but prior to any kind of serious winter weather, so that the maximum possible vote could be attained. Early November fit the bill. But why a Tuesday and how did we arrive at the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, which is the current Presidential Election Day?
The year 1845 provides the main clue, because, after years of fluctuating national election dates under an earlier law, Congress finally designated a uniform date. It would be the first Tuesday in November. This designation didn’t last long, however, since it conflicted with the existing Electoral College law, which required the electors to cast their votes within 34 days--on the 1st Wednesday in December. Under the 1845 law, it was claimed that they wouldn’t always be able to meet that obligation, although by my calculations, it’s not clear why not.
To resolve the (apparent) dilemma, Congress changed Election Day from the first Tuesday in November to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. The change allowed the electors to always meet their voting deadline and it also meant that Election Day could never fall on November 1, which was a good thing for other reasons:
* November 1st was usually the day when shopkeepers tallied their records from the previous month; and
* November 1st could have fallen on a Sunday, the Christian Sabbath; also, it was (and is) All Saints Day, a Catholic holy day of obligation.
Why Election Day is on a Tuesday?
Election Day’s placement on Tuesday stems from the need to be respectful, be politically correct (in today’s terminology), and to conform to the customs of the day.
With these considerations in mind, Election Day couldn’t fall on a Monday because farmers often needed a full day to travel to the polling places, which would conflict with the Sunday Sabbath. And it couldn’t be on a Wednesday, as that was “market day” in many towns. Having Presidential Election Day even later in the week or the following week would be tempting the “weather gods” and would interfere with the Electoral College deadline.
Despite all of the potential for weather-related problems in early November, this year we seem to have to dodged the bullet. For most of the country - and here in Washington - weather poses few obstacles. So, no matter how, when, or where, please be sure that you just (try to):
Jason Samenow contributed to this post.