In a special edition of This Week in History, rather than discussing a handful of events from different eras, we will instead be looking at the history of Election Day.
While voting is largely considered a quintessential American right, the Founding Fathers provided very little instruction on how voting was to be conducted in the Constitution. Because of this, states adopted their own ways of voting since there was no national standard. In fact, states did not vote on the same day until 1845, when Congress passed a federal law declaring that all Americans would vote on “the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November.” Before this, states had a 34-day window to hold their elections. This was problematic, however, because states who voted earlier tended to sway the opinions of states who voted at a later date, much like how the party primaries work today.
Now, you’re probably wondering why Congress decided to hold elections on a Tuesday in November. In order to understand this, it is important to remember that in 1845, the year the law was enacted, the majority of Americans were farmers. While 21st century voters may live 10 minutes away from their polling location, 19th century farmers needed at least one day to travel to their polling place in the nearest city or town. Weekends were not a possibility because most Americans were in church on Sundays. Wednesdays, farmers went to town to sell their crops at the market, so Tuesdays were chosen, since voters would already be heading toward their polling location.
November was also chosen with American farmers in mind. The spring was the planting season, late summer and early fall was the harvest time and travel was nearly impossible in the winter. Early November did not conflict with any season, and thus was chosen.
That being said, the majority of American voters are no longer farmers, leading many to wonder why the United States has never moved this holiday to accommodate the modern workforce, in the same way Congress accommodated farmers 175 years ago.
While voting today is very much a private business, when the U.S. was first founded, Election Day had more in common with college spring break than modern Election Day. In the 1700s, elections were drunken parties and parades where candidates bought barrels of beer, wine and rum for their constituencies. Voters would then stand on a platform and publicly announce who they were voting for, and it was considered rude not to vote for someone who just bought them a round of whiskey.
While this public voting seems outrageous to any modern voter, the fact of the matter was people loved Election Day in early America. Voter turnout neared 85%, the highest ever in American history, because voters were promised a good time and a lot of free booze. The problem, as you can imagine, was that voters largely followed the votes of their friends and neighbors, resulting in a very limited voter pool.
Of course when I say voter turnout reached 85%, that means 85% of eligible voters, not 85% of all Americans. At the time, voting was limited to White, property-owning males, above the age of 21. Historians estimate between 10 and 20% of Americans were eligible to vote in the first century of American history.
That being said, while Election Day is no longer the same exciting brawl, that does not make it any less important. Voter suppression still threatens the legitimacy of our democratic process, but legislation and advocacy has allowed for a much greater number of eligible voters that better represent the American population as a whole. However, the right to vote does not mean anything unless you utilize it and turn out to the polls on Election Day.