Why does America vote on Tuesdays, and what other alternatives might there be? Here are seven things you should know about the timing of Election Day.
Why are American federal elections held on Tuesdays?
The United States has held federal elections on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even-numbered years since 1845.
Tuesday was selected because it was the most convenient day for voting in 19th-century America. Most eligible voters were Christian farmers. People traveled by horse and buggy, and it could take a full day to travel to one’s polling site. Tuesday was ideal because it would not require travel on the Sunday Sabbath or interfere with “market day” on Wednesday.
Are there alternative election days in the United States?
Although all states conduct federal elections on a Tuesday, some states offer alternatives to in-person Tuesday voting. For example, 37 states (plus the District) offer early voting before Election Day.
Voting by mail is also an option for many people. Three states vote entirely by mail, and 27 states (plus the District) allow excuse-free absentee voting — meaning citizens can opt to vote by mail simply because they prefer to do so.
In 20 states, however, people can only vote by mail if they have an acceptable excuse. In Pennsylvania, for example, a citizen who wants to vote by mail must submit a signed statement explaining why they cannot vote in person. If a Pennsylvania voter has a medical reason for wanting to vote by mail, they need to describe their medical condition and list their doctor on the ballot request form.
The National Conference of State Legislatures sums up the variation in early and absentee voting in this figure.
How does America compare with the rest of the world?
The United States is one of the few democracies in the world that conducts weekday voting. For the rest of the world, Sunday is by far the most common voting day.
Could the United States move elections to the weekend?
An obvious alternative to Tuesday voting is to move federal elections to the weekend — either on Saturday or Sunday, or as a two-day event across both days. Weekend voting has received multiple endorsements in the media. In Congress, the Weekend Voting Act has seven co-sponsors in the Senate (S. 1828), and 97 co-sponsors in the House (H.R. 1094). Similar bills have been introduced in every session for over a decade. Yet none has ever made it out of committee.
Advocates argue weekend voting would be more convenient overall, as fewer Americans work on the weekends. They stress that weekday voting is particularly taxing for single parents, students and citizens who work multiple jobs. Lines would also be shorter on average, because turnout would be more spread out throughout the day.
Critics argue more people travel away from home on the weekends, and the burden of voting would just shift to other populations who have more weekend obligations. Moreover, the costs of running elections might be substantially increased. Because Saturday and Sunday are Sabbath days for devout Jews and Christians, elections would probably have to be held over the two-day period — creating a need for more poll workers and a process for securing ballots overnight.
What about making Election Day a federal holiday?
In 2001, the National Commission on Federal Election Reform recommended making Election Day a federal holiday. They suggested merging Election Day with Veterans Day. Fourteen states (plus the territory of Puerto Rico) already consider Election Day a statewide public holiday.
Advocates of an Election Day holiday stress that time off could relieve the workday burden of Tuesday voting and enhance civic culture.
However, critics note that not all employees get the day off during federal holidays — and that the types of workers least likely to reap the benefits of a federal holiday are those who already struggle to vote.
Would any of these changes increase turnout?
The short answer is: We don’t know for sure.
It is difficult to estimate how much each change actually affects turnout. There are many policies that vary between states and countries, making it difficult to isolate the effects of any single policy. Moreover, the full effects of electoral change may only be evident in the long run because much of voting behavior is habitual and changes gradually over time.
Countries with weekend voting do have higher turnout than those that do not, but it is difficult to directly attribute differences in turnout to weekend voting alone. The Government Accountability Office reported that likely effects of weekend voting on U.S. turnout are uncertain, and another study found that changes in weekend voting laws elsewhere had no effect on turnout.
The estimated effects of “convenience voting” policies — such as early voting and excuse-free voting by mail — vary widely. Several studies suggest policies that make it easier to vote do indeed increase turnout. Others suggest voting by mail might actually decrease turnout by diminishing the social experience of voting in person. Still others suggest that while convenience voting saves time and effort among the people who are already voting, it does little to help populations that have the lowest turnout.
What about getting paid time off on Election Day?
Some countries mandate that all employers offer paid time off on Election Day. There is no such federal law in the United States, though a “Time Off to Vote Act” has been proposed in Congress. Some states do have time-off-to-vote laws — though they vary on whether this time off is paid or unpaid. Many states have no such laws.
Stanford professors Adam Bonica and Michael McFaul recently called on businesses and universities to voluntarily cancel classes and grant paid time off to employees on Election Day. More than 400 political science professors and voting rights experts signed onto this campaign. Some universities — such as Stanford and Northwestern Law — have also created their own universitywide Election Day holidays.
Despite the absence of federal regulation, more than 300 companies have voluntarily pledged to grant paid time off to their employees on Election Day in 2018. Many companies signed on to similar campaigns in previous elections as well.
Thus, it seems intuitive that making it easier to vote would at least reduce the costs of voting for some people and might also increase turnout among others.
Victoria Shineman is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh.