Taughannock Falls

Taughannock Falls
from: althouse.blogspot.com

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Valuing the Vote

Well today I was out trying to drum up support for the Mayor of Providence, David Cicilline, who faces a democratic primary election Tuesday. He is running to become the Democratic nominee to represent the first congressional district of Rhode Island, open now thanks to the retirement of Patrick Kennedy. I met a lot of nice folks, including one middle-aged woman who asked me a simple question: "How come elections are on Tuesday? I mean it's hard to go vote in the middle of the week." I wasn't able to give her a very good answer, though I cheered her up by letting her know the polls were open fairly late. The whole rest of the day the question nagged at me. Were U.S. elections on Tuesday back in the days of Washington and Adams? Was there any debate over the matter? Have there been attempts to make election day a public holiday?

When our system of national elections was first organized, very few people argued in favor of direct universal suffrage. Law-abiding white male citizens with sufficient property were the only people deemed worthy of the vote. Even this group was considered dangerously broad, and so checks on the popular vote were built into the system. Senators, for example, were to be selected by state legislatures, not directly elected by the voting public. The Electoral College was established to ensure that more responsible men could intervene if an irrational voting public chose an unsuitable man for President. Only the elections for the House, held every two years, were meant to reflect the direct choice of all the voters in each district.

So how did we come to settle on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November as Election Day? The original practice allowed for significant variations between the states. The firm date was the date for the state's electors (the Electoral College) to meet: the first Wednesday in December. States were allowed to hold their elections at any time they chose in the 34 day period prior to that first Wednesday in December. It wasn't until 1845 that the U.S. Congress decided to establish a national election day. At that time, while a new industrial sector was beginning to emerge in New England and the mid-Atlantic, the voting public was still overwhelmingly involved in farming. Early November was after the harvest, but before the first big winter snows. Tuesday was chosen so as not to interfere with the Sabbath or market day, which in most towns and villages was held on Wednesday. This date had been adopted already in New York State, and now became the national norm. A handful of states-- Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and West Virginia-- have made election day a civic holiday, in most of the U.S. it is still a regular work day.

I think that progressive politicians in other states could benefit from making an election day holiday a campaign issue. People love holidays, and the opponents of such a move would be forced to admit that they favor lower voter turnout, or just don't like holidays for American workers, who enjoy far less paid time off than their counterparts in the rest of the developed world.

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