Why are US elections always on a Tuesday in November?

Ellen Manning
·4 min read
Polling location for US federal elections
Voters will take to the polls in the 2020 US presidential election on Tuesday, November 3. (Getty)

The race is well under way for the 2020 US presidential election, with less than two months to go until Donald Trump and Joe Biden face off the big day on 3 November.

But have you ever noticed that US elections always happen on a Tuesday and always in November?

It’s not by chance. If you look back through the history books you’ll find there is a clear reason for the election taking place at such a specific time.

What is the official law on when Election Day in the US takes place?

Approved in January 1845, the law in the US states that: “the electors of President and Vice President shall be appointed in each state on the Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November of the year in which they are to be appointed”.

That effectively means that election day takes place on the first Tuesday after 1 November, with 2 November the earliest possible date for an election and 8 November the latest.

Joe Biden and Donald Trump
Joe Biden and Donald Trump are going head to head in the 2020 US presidential election. (Getty)

For the 2020 election, that means it will happen on 3 November.

Why was Election Day set for the first Tuesday in November?

It all goes back to 1845 when Congress passed a law to set a single election day for the entire country.

Up until then, different states could hold elections when they wanted as long as it was within a 34-day period before the first Wednesday in December.

But the system meant that the results of states who voted early could affect the turnout in states that held their later on. On top of that, it could also sway opinion. Holding elections on the same day across the country was hoped to limit that.

Why did Congress choose November for US elections?

At that time, the US was a largely agrarian society, with farmers making up most of the labour force.

That meant that holding elections in spring or early summer would coincide with the planting season, while late summer and early autumn would clash with harvest.

Holding elections in early November meant any harvest was over, so farmers would actually take time out to actually cast their vote, but the harsh winter weather hadn’t quite arrived, allowing them to make the sometimes-lengthy journey to the polls.

Why do US presidential elections have to take place on Tuesdays?

Again, the decision to make election day a Tuesday in November was all about the way people lived their lives in the US back in 1845.

At the time, most Americans were devout Christians so Sunday was a no-go as it was set aside for church and as a day of rest.

In most areas Wednesday was a market day when farmers would sell their crops, so having elections on that day wouldn’t work either.

For many people, voting meant travelling long distances to cast their vote, meaning they had to leave a day to travel. That meant that election day couldn’t be a Monday or a Thursday, because they would have to travel on a Sunday or a Wednesday, clashing with church or market. That left Tuesday as the best choice.

Old US Constitution on parchment paper
The decision to hold elections on a Tuesday in November goes back to 1845 when Congress passed a law to set a single election day for the entire country. (Getty)

It wasn’t just any Tuesday though – the reason election day was picked as the Tuesday “after the first Monday” was to make sure it couldn’t fall on 1 November, which was observed by some Christmas as All Saints’ Day.

On top of that, many merchants typically took the first day of the month to do their accounts, so it was thought that it wouldn’t be wise to allow election day to fall on that day.

Is a Tuesday in November still convenient for a 2020 election?

Holding election day on a Tuesday might have been helpful in 1845 but it’s slightly less convenient in 2020.

For most Americans nowadays, Tuesday is a work day, making it more disruptive than it once was.

Some have suggested that election day should be moved to a weekend to encourage higher turnout, while others have suggested that election day should be made a federal holiday.