Election Day in the United States takes place on the Tuesday that follows the first Monday in November. This day can fall between November 2 and November 8. Congress passed a federal law in 1845 to officially name this day in November as Election Day. This year’s presidential election will be held on Tuesday, November 6th.
Before Congress designated Election Day, states held elections anytime within the 34 days preceding the first Wednesday in December. There were problems with this system, however. Voters in some states would know how other states voted before their own elections were held. This influenced voter turnout too much. Last-minute voters, aware of earlier voting results from other states, might show up in especially large numbers and end up deciding the outcome.
But this does not explain why the vote is held in early November. The answer lies in the way of life of people in the 1800s, when most Americans were farmers. Because people lived on farms, they were far from the towns where their polling locations would be. People needed time to travel—at least a day. They often spent Sunday in church, making elections on the weekend impractical. On the other hand, Wednesday was usually market day for farmers. This meant that Tuesday was an ideal day to allow people time to get to the polls as it did not interfere with their usual daily lives.
This same agrarian culture is also the reason why November is the month for Election Day. Planting season was spring and early summer, so farmers had to be available then. Harvest time was summer and early fall, so this time was not well-suited either. November is after the harvest but before winter when the weather might be too harsh for travel. As a result, a Tuesday in November was thought to be the best time to hold elections, and Congress chose the first Tuesday after the first Monday of that month to be designated as Election Day.
In the United States, voter participation in elections is often low. Many people are simply not motivated to vote, or they do not feel their vote counts. Local elections, such as for mayor, usually have the lowest turnout, but even during a presidential election many people do not vote. Only 58 percent of eligible voters went to the polls for the last presidential election, in 2016. Compare this to the presidential election of 1876, when 82 percent of the voting population cast ballots. Turnout varies depending on the type of election, the competitiveness of the race, the importance of the state to the overall election, and voting laws.
Another factor to consider is demographics, which can reveal trends in who today is more likely to vote, or not. Generally, voters tend to be older than nonvoters. Young voters are the least likely to vote, often at 15-20 percentage points lower than voters over age 30. White and black voters participate at rates similar to one another. Over 60 percent of eligible voters in each of these groups cast a ballot, but less than half of eligible Latinos and Asian Americans vote.
Voters also tend to be wealthier. In the 2016 presidential election, of the eligible voters who made less than $30,00 a year, only 17 percent voted compared to 64 percent of those who made $50,000 a year or more. This can affect policymaking as lawmakers are more likely to advocate for the interests of those who vote. Since 1980, more women have voted than men. For example, in the 2016 presidential election, 6 percent more women than men voted. In response, some politicians now pay more attention to issues of importance to women voters.
Interestingly, Election Day is not a federal holiday. Businesses and schools are still open, and in fact, some people have a difficult time getting to their polling station to vote because of work schedules. This can affect voter turnout as well. Some states allow potential voters to register on Election Day, while other states require voter registration in advance. According to the Pew Research Center—a nonpartisan group that provides data on social issues and public opinion—states that allow same-day registration often have higher voter turnout.
Some states, including Ohio, Florida, New Jersey, and Texas, hope to increase turnout by providing early voting. However, Pew Research indicates that early voting may not be enough. Their findings show that by spreading the election process over a longer period of time, voters feel less peer pressure to vote on Election Day. They also may get less motivated to vote if the energy of the event is not focused on one day. A single day creates urgency. In addition, research shows that states without early voting often receive far more of the advertising dollars spent to sway voters. Advertising and media focus help create more excitement around Election Day.
Another solution to low turnout could be making Election Day a federal holiday. People would be able to make it to the polls without work conflicts, and as a holiday the buzz would be especially high. Attempts to make this happen have stalled, however, since businesses would have to close for the day.
Volunteers from both parties hope to increase voter turnout to sway the election toward their respective candidates. All Americans, and the world, will be waiting for the results on Election Day, Tuesday, November 6th.