Ever wonder why Americans always vote in federal elections (and many state, and local elections [PDF]) on Tuesdays? There are a few reasons—including a little something to do with the horse and buggy.
Between 1788 and 1845, states decided their own voting dates. In 2012, Senate historian Don Ritchie told NPR that strategy resulted in chaos, a “crazy quilt of elections” held all across the country at different times to pick the electors—the white, male property owners who would cast their votes for president on the first Wednesday of December.
In 1792, a law was passed mandating that state elections be held within a 34-day period before that day, so most elections took place in November. (Society was mostly agrarian; in November, the harvest was finished but winter hadn’t yet hit, making it the perfect time to vote.)
The glacial pace of presidential elections wasn’t a huge issue in the late 18th and early 19th centuries—communication was slow, so results took weeks to announce anyway—but with the advent of the railroad and telegraph, Congress decided it was time to standardize a date.
Monday was out, because it would require people to travel to the polls by buggy on the Sunday Sabbath. Wednesday was also not an option, because it was market day, and farmers wouldn’t be able to make it to the polls. So it was decided that Tuesday would be the day that Americans would vote in elections, and in 1845, Congress passed a law that presidential elections would be held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.
Now that you know why elections are held on Tuesdays, find out what to do if you’re in line when the polls close, learn how the “I voted” sticker came to be, and brush up on some election facts from around the world.
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A version of this story originally ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2023.