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US Elections: Why the First Tuesday in November? - 2002-11-05

Why are U.S. elections held on the first Tuesday in November? Some say the choice has agrarian and religious origins. Others dismiss these more romantic notions and say there is a very practical reason, especially in presidential years.

No less an authority than the Federal Election Commission points to the agricultural and religious roots of America's election day.

On its website, the commission says the U.S. government officially set the date on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November in 1845. America was predominantly a farming community at the time and the date made sense in an era before the automobile was invented.

The commission says the month of November was considered a convenient month for farmers and rural workers to vote because the autumn harvest was over. Also, the weather was still mild enough to allow farmers to travel long distances by horse and wagon to their polling places, on roads that soon would be covered with mud or snow.

The date, Tuesday, was chosen because many people in rural areas lived so far away from their voting locations that they would have to begin traveling the day before. For those who went to church on Sunday, starting the trip that day was not an acceptable option.

Allan Lichtman, a U.S. history professor at American University, says before the U.S. election day was officially set more than 150 years ago, American politics was chaotic because different U.S. states voted at different times.

Professor Lichtman does not completely reject the date's agrarian origins, but emphasizes the practical basis for the choice.

"There is some longer history about voting after the harvest is completed, but the fundamental issue with a single election day is to establish uniformity and to establish time for the electoral mechanisms in the United States to take place," he says.

This year's elections are midterm elections, which come halfway through the president's four-year term.

Professor Lichtman says he feels having the vote in November is most significant during presidential election years, because it allows enough time for the mechanisms of the U.S. electoral system to do what they need to do before a new president takes office in January.