If Andrew Young has his way, never again will we have a Tuesday election. The former mayor of Atlanta and ambassador to the United Nations wants to switch the nation's voting to the weekend.
Young is the co-chairman of a newly formed group called "Why Tuesday? Let's Move the Vote." A veteran of the civil rights movement, which lobbied for the Voting Rights Act, he came to Washington this week to express his frustration that so few Americans -- especially young people -- exercise the right to the franchise for which so many of his generation struggled for so long.
Young and William Wachtel, the New York lawyer who founded the organization and is financing it, confronted me with the question in their organization's name: Why Tuesday? And, as they told me, I had plenty of company in not knowing the answer.
"Most of the elected officials we ask think it's in the Constitution," Young said, "that we vote on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. It's not. It was set by a statute that passed Congress in 1845, regularizing what had been various voting days in different states."
And why Tuesday? The debates from the time tell us that Tuesday was deemed the most convenient day for what was then a largely rural society. Saturday was a workday on the farm. Sunday was the Lord's day, not to be profaned with partisanship. But it took a day for many farmers to reach the county seat in those horse-and-buggy times, so Monday was out as well. Tuesday or Wednesday would let them vote and return home in time for the weekend. But Wednesday was market day for many communities, so Tuesday it became by process of elimination.
What was a matter of convenience in 1845 is hardly the same today in our urban society. It is a working day for most Americans, which means that they have to leave early for work (as I did Tuesday to vote in Virginia) or stop by the polling place at the end of their day.
That means, among other things, that polls tend to be crowded in the early morning and the late afternoon and early evening, delaying or frustrating many would-be voters.
Tuesday is also a school day, and since many communities (including mine) use schools as polling places, they either have to cancel classes or arrange for the buses to discharge and pick up students from parking lots crowded with the cars of voters.
All of these problems, Young says, contribute to the low turnouts in American elections. According to Young, the United States ranks 139th of 172 nations in the percentage of eligible citizens voting.
The civil rights champion has enlisted some significant bipartisan support for his effort. Jack Kemp, the former Republican vice presidential candidate, Cabinet member and congressman, has joined former senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, a onetime Democratic presidential hopeful, in backing the effort.
Young's goal at this point is simply to stir some discussion of the idea. A bill sponsored by Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin to shift voting to the weekend has gone nowhere in Congress.
Young's group commissioned a poll on the issue of voting time by Republican Ed Goeas and Democrat Celinda Lake, and it found a very mixed picture. On one hand, more than nine out of 10 of those surveyed said they regard voting as an important civic duty and, additionally, believe everything possible should be done to make voting as convenient as possible.
On the other hand, three out of four said they favor keeping Election Day on Tuesday, while only 45 percent said they like the idea of moving voting to the weekend.
The survey found broader support for allowing voting by mail for several weeks before Election Day and for allowing early voting at designated locations with no reason required for casting a ballot ahead of time.
Only one voter in six said he or she had had difficulty finding time to vote because of other commitments. But three out of 10 said they would be more likely to vote if Election Day were moved to the weekend.
That last measure was much higher for some groups that generally lag in voter turnout. Among African Americans, 52 percent said they would be more likely to vote on the weekend; among Hispanics, 48 percent said so, as did an identical 48 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds. Notably high percentages of singles, working women, and residents of Texas and California also said that weekend voting would bring them to the polls.
All of which suggests that Young is right in seeing this as an extension of the civil rights and voting rights efforts.