Why Tennessee Holds Thursday Primaries

Most American elections are held, of course, on Tuesdays. In Tennessee, primaries are on Thursdays. Why? For no better reason than that the Tennessee Constitution says so.
by | August 17, 2010

wondered the other week why Tennessee holds its primaries on a Thursday. My grandfather, being an intrepid former reporter (and loyal Governing Politics reader), actually e-mailed a Tennessee elections official to find out. Here's what she said:

Art. VII, Sec. 5 of the Tennessee Constitution provides that “elections for Judicial and other civil officers shall be held on the first Thursday in August, one thousand eight hundred and seventy, and forever thereafter on the first Thursday in August next preceding the expiration of their respective terms of service."  The reference to "civil officers" has been applied to the constitutional county offices and establishes the date of the election for county officials.

Also, TCA 2-13-202 requires political parties to nominate their candidates at the regular August election for the offices of Governor, Members of the general assembly, United States senator, and Members of the United States House of Representatives.  The "regular August" election is that described in Art. VII, Sec. 5 of the Tennessee Constitution quoted above.

Finally, TCA 2-13-103 requires the members of the state executive committee for each party to be elected at the regular August primary election immediately before the election of the governor.

In other words, Tennessee votes on Thursday because the Tennessee Constitution says so. In some sense, that's a very dissatisfying answer. It doesn't answer the key question: What motivated the authors of the constitution to pick Thursday when other places chose Tuesday?

In some sense, though, that answer clarifies quite a lot. First, it's helpful to know the history of Tuesday voting in the United States. Here's what an advocacy group called "Why Tuesday?" has to say:

In 1845, before Florida, California, and Texas were states or slavery had been abolished, Congress needed to pick a time for Americans to vote. We were an agrarian society. We traveled by horse and buggy. Farmers needed a day to get to the county seat, a day to vote, and a day to get back, without interfering with the three days of worship. So that left Tuesday and Wednesday, but Wednesday was market day. So, Tuesday it was. In 1875 Congress extended the Tuesday date for national House elections and in 1914 for federal Senate elections.

While Tennessee's current constitution dates from 1870, the tradition of Thursday voting is much older. Here's a provision in the state's original 1796 constitution:

The first election for senators and representatives shall commence on the second Thursday of March next, and shall continue for that and the succeeding day, and the next election shall commence on the first Thursday of August, 1797, and shall continue on that and the succeeding day; and forever after election shall be held once in two years, commencing on the first Thursday in August and terminating the succeeding day.

So, I think I'm piecing together some parts of the story. In 1796, for some reason that remains a mystery to me, Tennessee starts holding elections on Thursdays. The state writes a new constitution in 1870, before Congress ever mandated Tuesday general elections. With no push for a particular election date coming from Washington, Tennessee is free to keep holding Thursday elections like it always has. Congress eventually mandates Tuesday general elections, but not Tuesday primaries.

Some state constitutions are revised frequently, but Tennessee's isn't. It's easy to see why. Amendments to the constitution require a majority vote of the legislature and then, after the next legislative elections, a two-thirds vote of the legislature. Then, the public has to approve the change on a majority vote. The legislature can also call a constitutional convention, but only with a legislative vote and a majority vote of the people.

In practice, there's only rarely been the will to change the document. Ballotpedia notes:

This 1870 document stood unamended until 1953, which according to the Tennessee Blue Book was the longest period that any such document had remained in effect without amendment anywhere in the world.

It's likely that only a few historians know why Tennessee chose Thursday elections in 1796 (if you're one of them, please tell me!). But, I think I do know why Tennessee holds Thursday elections in 2010. It's the same reason that Delaware, Pennsylvania and Maryland have elected registers of wills: inertia.

Changing Tennessee's primary day would take quite a bit of effort. No one wants to make that effort. Thursdays aren't really a worse day of the week to hold elections than Tuesdays -- except maybe that some voters are confused because their state is different from others. As a result, Tennessee still has a Thursday primary, even if almost no one remembers the original reason why.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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