The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Election Day falls on the latest possible day this year

(Amy Cavenaile/The Washington Post; iStock)

If time flies when you're having fun, this election season is the political equivalent of a visit to the dentist. Election Day is just two weeks away, and time seems to be slowing to a crawl.

The Access Hollywood videotape, in which Republican candidate Donald Trump was caught making lewd remarks about women on a hot mic, was released only a little over two weeks ago. Since then, the tenor of the election has sunk further with the release of more allegations of sexual assault against Trump and leaked emails from the campaign of Democrat Hillary Clinton.

The Onion, the satirical newspaper, joked about the excruciating pace of the election with this headline: “FEC Extends Election By 7 Months To Give Nation Chance to Better Get To Know Candidates.” Others have quipped that we are stuck in a version of Zeno's paradox, in which someone travels half of the distance to their goal over and over again. With an infinite number of stopping points, the final goal can never be reached, and the logical conclusion is that all motion is an illusion.

To make things more excruciating, Election Day happens to be scheduled on the latest possible day this year. America votes not on the first Tuesday in November, but on the first Tuesday after a Monday in November — i.e., any time between Nov. 2 and Nov. 8. Because November 1 falls on a Tuesday, we have almost an entire extra week of campaigning this election. In fact, it’s the latest election date since George Bush faced off against Michael Dukakis in 1988.

There’s a wonky reason we go to the polls on that date. Much of it has to do with America’s roots as a farming economy. Politicians chose November in part because it was after the fall harvest, but not yet late enough in the year that ice and snow would close roads in many parts of the country.

In addition, they chose a Tuesday because they knew many people would have to travel from rural areas into their county seat to vote. Election officials did not want to require people to travel on Sunday, the Sabbath for Christians, and Wednesday was traditionally a market day in many towns. So Tuesday was chosen as voting day.

The reason it’s a Tuesday after a Monday in November is a bit more complicated. Originally, the date was chosen so it would be relatively close to the timing of a meeting of the electoral college, which was held on the first Wednesday in December. In 1792, the rules simply said that the election must be held within the 34 days before that meeting, and states selected their own Election Day.

However, that system presented some problems: The results from states that voted earlier could influence the results in states that voted later. In 1845, Congress passed new legislation specifying Election Day for the whole country as the first Tuesday in November. But there was a problem with that rule: Depending on the calendar, the first Tuesday didn’t always fall within 34 days of the electoral college meeting in December. So an amendment was passed to specify that voting would happen on the first Tuesday after the first Monday.

By the end of the 19th Century, the meeting day of the electoral college had been moved to the second Monday in January; in the 1930s it was moved again, to the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December.

Today, some believe that we should move Election Day to a weekend or make it a national holiday. Some groups argue that, by scheduling Election Day on a Tuesday, when most Americans are required to work, we are suppressing the vote.

The tradition of voting on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November is a vestigial structure of a by-gone age. But it’s still enough to prolong our election this year.

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