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In Brief

How the U.S. Decided When to Vote

04 November 2011

Three women at a ballot box in 1917 casting votes (Library of Congress)

How did Americans decide to schedule general elections on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November? It had to do with harvest, religious services and business bookkeeping.

Americans go to the polls for general elections on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. If this seems like a needlessly complicated way to schedule a vote, it didn’t seem so in 1845, when the day was set.

The United States was largely an agrarian society then. Voting was scheduled for November because that was when the harvest was over, but before winter weather that might keep voters from the polls arrived. For those in rural areas who lived far from the polls, Tuesday, rather than Monday, was selected to allow them the option of traveling after Sunday church worship and still reaching their destinations in time to cast their votes.

But why didn’t lawmakers just settle on the first Tuesday in November? They wanted to avoid elections on November 1 because it’s All Saints’ Day, when Roman Catholics are obligated to attend Mass, and also the day when merchants balance the previous month’s accounts.

Here, three women, newly enfranchised to vote, cast their ballots in New York in 1917.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/iipdigital-en/index.html)