is president and CEO
of the National Constitution Center
Why are you voting today?
I'm not asking what - or who - is inspiring you to go the polls. (And I truly hope you go, inspired or not.) I mean: Why are you voting today?
The authors of the U.S. Constitution were mum when it came to designating how and when Americans should vote. To be sure, the idea that the people themselves should vote for their representation is part and parcel of the document's genius. But when it came to the particulars, for the most part, the framers thought it better to let each state decide not only how and when to vote, but even who should be allowed to cast a ballot.
As a result, the first elections for president and Congress took place over a seven-month period ranging from November 1788 to June 1789. (And we think campaigns last too long today!)
It took another half-century before a law was passed establishing Election Day on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. That 1845 statute not only standardized voting for president and Congress, it created a tradition we stick to today: the Tuesday vote.
So why'd they pick Tuesday?
Tuesday seemed to be a convenient day for most eligible voters, since they were mostly rural workers and landed gentry who needed to get to their county seats to cast a ballot, this being before the days of voting machines in every school and firehouse. Tuesday didn't disturb the Sunday Sabbath; it didn't interfere with Wednesday market days, and it allowed Monday for travel to the far-off courthouse.
Like so many conventions of the calendar that hearken back to an agrarian America, however, Tuesday voting may no longer fit our modern, metropolitan workforce. In fact, there's some evidence that it has contributed to a worrying trend of low voter turnout, especially when compared with other Western democracies not nearly as old and experienced as ours.
A Census Bureau survey taken shortly after the 1996 election found that the most common reason Americans gave for not voting was that they didn't have the time off from work or school, and were "too busy" to cast a ballot. Just an excuse for civic apathy and laziness? Perhaps.
But the number of nonvoters citing that excuse increased dramatically since the last time the Census Bureau asked the question. And it may be no coincidence that the increase occurred as Americans are working demonstrably longer hours.
The midweek vote not only makes it harder for working adults to get to the polls; it also makes it harder for election officials to recruit poll workers needed to supervise the process and ensure its integrity. That's why the National Commission on Federal Election Reform, chaired by former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in 2001, recommended that Congress pass legislation to hold federal elections on a national holiday. Others have recommended weekend voting.
Of course, one reason the Tuesday vote has been with us for more than a century-and-a-half is that the alternatives aren't perfect either. But a free-wheeling dialogue on why we vote when we do would be a good place to start. At a minimum, a spirited debate on the options would rekindle our appreciation of the process by which we choose our leaders, and invite more potential voters to participate in shaping the future.
Appreciation of that freedom could use a boost. On primary election day in Philadelphia in 1999, for example, only 4 in 10 eligible voters made it to the polls.
As you go to the polls today, as you ask who deserves your vote for mayor of Philadelphia, Lower Merion school board, or Pennsylvania judge, ask yourself another question: Is Tuesday really the best day for such an awesome and important task as voting?