HISTORY OF ELECTION DAY
Why does the US vote on a Tuesday in November?
Historically, the United States was an agrarian society where much of the calendar revolved around farming. In 1840, Congress set voting day on the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November. This time provided a convenient month for farmers, who needed to travel perhaps overnight to the county seat’s polling places, following the Autumn harvest season. The weather would not yet have turned bad enough to make rural roads impassable.
Election Day Travel
Rural Americans would begin their trip on Monday, rather than on Sunday lest their travel interfere with Sunday worship services. It had to be on a Tuesday following the first Monday to not fall on November 1st, a holiday known as All Saints Day. Additionally, the first day of the month was when accounting books were brought up to date. While Election Day is a federal holiday, it is observed only by government holidays in the capital of Washington, D.C., and those counties that border it in the states of Virginia and Maryland.
Election Day Restrictions
Voting in America was originally limited to citizens who were free, white, male, and landowners.
- In 1856 Congress removed the landowner restriction.
- In 1870 the 15th Amendment to the Constitution passed by Congress allowed African American and other non-white men to vote, though this was restricted in parts of the South (and North) until the 1960s. In 1924 Congress granted the right to vote to Native Americans, though some states banned this until the 1940s.
- In 1920 the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote, ratified 100 years ago. But the first woman to run for President was Victoria Woodhull, who ran in 1872, almost 50 years before women could vote. Since then, over 200 women have run for President, although until 2016, only from minor political parties.
Election Day Methodologies
During the first 50 years of elections in the US, voting was done by voters at the local courthouse aloud. Vive voce, or voice voting, persisted in some parts of the country until 1891. Voter validation was done by having the voter place his hand upon a Bible, identify themselves, and swear that they hadn’t voted already.
Paper ballots appeared in the early part of the 19th century in the US, often printed by newspapers. Without standardization, the voter would write the candidates’ names upon the slip of paper and drop it in the ballot box. In the later 19th century, political parties would preprint what looked like train “tickets” with only their candidates on them so that a voter could vote “party line.” Of course, allegations of voting fraud emerged, and a different ballot was introduced in 1888 by New York and Massachusetts.
In the early part of the 20th-century, voting machines were installed in local town halls where voters could pull a lever to pick their candidate. But as the “ballot” became more involved, the complexity of the logic of counting the selected candidates became more complex. The fact that they were mechanical and electrical monstrosities meant miscounts were very difficult for election officials to detect.
In the 1960s, the punch card was introduced to voting by IBM so that computers could be used to count votes and give much faster results. The “IBM card” was based on an invention by Herman Hollerith, who taught mechanical engineering at MIT. He was experimenting with punched cards and electromechanical tabulation of data. He eventually worked for the US Census Bureau, where his Electric Tabulating System was used in the 1890 US Census.
The Hollerith punch card was the same size and shape as the paper currency at the time and would fit easily into a wallet. Hollerith’s method was used in the census of 11 other countries across the world. He founded a company called the Tabulating Machine Company. In 1924 it was renamed International Business Machines (IBM).
Hollerith’s original card was 12 rows and 24 columns. It later evolved to 12 rows and 80 columns. Now you know why your Microsoft Word document defaults to 80 characters across.
I learned how to program computers with Hollerith’s IBM punch cards in the mid-1970s.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian