A century and a half before the Fourth of July had any particular significance, before Christmas was widely celebrated and long before Thanksgiving was a national holiday, there was Election Day.
Through the Revolutionary period, the Election Day tradition evolved into more lavish public affairs, at which voters could expect to be treated with barbecue, cake and rum punch. George Washington provided 158 gallons of alcohol to voters during one Virginia election.
Although Americans today are unaccustomed to debating political issues around open barrels of booze, other aspects of our long Election Day tradition should be revived, along with the passionate electoral engagement that accompanied it. American voter participation is abysmal compared with other established democracies, trailing behind countries such as France and Mexico that observe federal holidays for general elections — and also compared with Americans of the 19th century.
The far more robust voter turnouts of this earlier period, in which elections occasioned boisterous public festivities, reveal a civic culture that we’ve lost. That culture was not perfect; Election Day was not only a day of celebration but also of exclusion and, importantly, of resistance. We should should seize on this history — and learn from its blind spots — to imagine a public, social democracy in the United States today.
As property requirements gave way to “universal” white male suffrage around 1840, Election Day became synonymous with raucous public revelries of common people enacting and celebrating democracy. Parades sometimes stretched to 10 miles, with musical bands, banners, horse-drawn floats and huge balls revealing slogans as they rolled. These festivities were family-friendly affairs during the day, with popcorn balls, candy and peanuts for sale along parade routes and carnival tents nearby. From 1840 to 1900, young people were central to these events. First-time voting was a thrilling rite of passage for men turning 21, openly compared to the loss of virginity.
Is it any wonder that this period was also the pinnacle of voter participation in American history? From 1840 to 1896, about 80 percent of eligible voters showed up for elections. By comparison, the most vigorous turnout in a recent election was 63 percent, in 2008; it was down to about 56 percent in 2016.
This low turnout is attributable in part to the fact that Americans can’t get time off from work to vote. In early America, elections took place on different days in different states, but in 1845, when Congress chose a uniform date for all to observe, it was selected specifically with voter turnout in mind. The now-familiar Tuesday in November was chosen so that voters in remote areas would not have to travel to the polls on Sundays, and because it fell after the busiest season for farmers but before winter storms had started.
During that time, business owners often closed shop and many states passed laws recognizing Election Day as an official public holiday. This is still the case in some places: Election Day remains a civic holiday in eight states and the territory of Puerto Rico. Other states such as California have statutes providing that workers must be given adequate time to vote. Employees of companies including Lyft and Patagonia enjoy paid time off on Election Day. Members of the United Auto Workers union do, too.
But work schedules are not the only barrier to civic participation.
Native Americans watched the festivities in colonial villages but were not regarded as members of the community; indeed, their suffrage rights were contested well into the 20th century. In the antebellum North, African Americans avoided public celebrations of this kind as a safety measure, steering clear of places where drunken white men gathered.
After black men were enfranchised by the 15th Amendment, some formerly enslaved communities in the South initially turned out at nearly 90 percent. But polling places soon became sites of violent intimidation. In the months leading up to Election Day 1876 in South Carolina, African Americans were whipped, terrorized and driven from their homes. Well over 100 were killed.
With this targeted suppression of the electorate, white Southerners overthrew Reconstruction that year and instituted suffrage restrictions that disenfranchised black citizens until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 90 years later. Our election cycle reveals that the process is still marred by voter-roll purges and other obstacles to basic participation in democracy. We’re a far cry from creating an atmosphere of inclusion that would be cause for celebration, a source of pleasure, pride and community spirit.
The process by which voters were demobilized in the 20th century was complex. Factors ranged from racist violence at the polls and onerous voter registration requirements to Prohibition-era laws, some repealed only recently, which closed bars — many of which had previously served as campaign headquarters — on Election Day. Socioeconomic class dropped out of campaign rhetoric, corporations and elites came to control party agendas and Americans increasingly doubted that their votes mattered. And it’s clear that this trend has disproportionately affected nonwhite, working-class and poor Americans.
In recent years, calls have mounted from citizens, businesses, nonprofit organizations and politicians to declare Election Day a new federal holiday. Congress considered bills to that effect in 2001, 2002 and 2005, and this push promises to continue. A federal holiday might go a long way toward reinvigorating voter turnout, but honoring our historical Election Day tradition would require a deeper change in our engagement with the political process.
What might it look like in contemporary America to take some aspect of the experience back from the spectator sport of cable news, to create a popular politics that would animate voter participation?
Some are beginning to revive convivial elements of this tradition that Americans long ago abandoned, such as brewing election beer and modernizing the massive spice cake that colonial-era women handed out to muster voters to the polls. Such a revival isn’t a cure for partisanship — 19th-century elections were every bit as contentious and divisive as ours today — but the holiday managed nevertheless to unite a broad swath of the population in a civic culture that celebrated the process itself.
Declaring Election Day a federal holiday and rekindling the celebratory spirit that marked the day in previous centuries would be an important step toward promoting democratic participation. But we must also depart from our history to create an inclusive Election Day in which all Americans can take part.