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Why is Election Day Always a Tuesday?

Does holding elections on a workday contribute to low voter turnout?

Stack of paper slips that say Tuesday
iStockphoto.com
Last month, on the first Tuesday after the first Monday, millions of Americans went to the polls and voted in state and local elections, as well as the federal midterms.

Most of those voters arrived at work late -- or left early or snuck out during lunch -- just to cast their ballots. Why? Because Election Day is always on a Tuesday. Why is that?

It’s a question being raised by a growing number of election-reform advocates who say that holding elections on a midweek workday contributes to the United States’ abysmally low voter-turnout rate. The U.S. ranks around 140th in voter participation among the world’s countries.

“Voting on Tuesday is the No. 1 remaining burden to voter participation,” says Jacob Soboroff, executive director of Why Tuesday?, a national nonpartisan group that advocates weekend voting. “Moving Election Day to the weekend is the single biggest thing we can do in our country to get more people involved in the political process.”

When Congress was trying to establish a national Election Day in 1845, the biggest concern was accommodating an agrarian society. Farmers needed a day to travel to the county seat, a day to vote and a day to return home. Ruling out days of worship left Tuesday and Wednesday, but Wednesday was typically market day. So, Tuesday it was.

Few Americans still rely on a horse and buggy to get to the voting booth. In today’s urban society, reform advocates say, Tuesday voting is more a hassle than a convenience. In recent years, expanded early voting periods and no-excuse-needed absentee voting in many states have made it easier to cast a ballot without missing work. But what’s really needed, these reformers argue, is a full-out shift to Saturday voting.

Voters in one jurisdiction will get to experiment with weekend voting next year. Last month, San Francisco residents overwhelmingly approved a measure to open polls for the November 2011 election on Tuesday and the previous Saturday. “We’re trying to engage more people in the democratic process,” says Alex Tourk, a local political affairs consultant who spearheaded the effort. “It’s not rocket science to hold an election on a day when most people aren’t working.”

Still, there are complications. Since the San Francisco pilot project essentially establishes two full election days, there’s an added cost to the city. Tourk must cover those expenditures by raising funds from private sources -- but establishing what those costs are will be tricky. Tourk pegs them “somewhere in the neighborhood of a million dollars,” while city elections director John Arntz says they’re more like “$1.7 million, and that’s on the low end.” The pilot program also directs the city to compile an after-report on the Saturday election’s “impact on working families” -- something Arntz says his office isn’t equipped to do.

Saturday voting won’t be the norm anytime soon. But San Francisco’s experiment could provide some interesting insights into what happens when people don’t have to choose between voting and putting in a full day at the office. Weekend voting may ultimately not change anything, but given America’s bottom-of-the-barrel turnout rates, it sure can’t hurt.

Andy Kim is a former GOVERNING staff writer.
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