Monday, November 1, 2010

It Shall Be Held on the First Blue Moon After the 42nd Shooting Star, But No Earlier Than Right After Ethel Gets Her Yearly Haircut...

Election Day is almost upon us here in the United States. This year, it's to be held tomorrow, Tuesday, November 2, 2010.

How do I know when Election Day is? Well, you would think I know this because of the four-hundred-thirty-two-thousand-three-hundred-seventeen (mostly negative) pieces of campaign ads that jam my mailbox.

Or the four-hundred-thirty-two-thousand-three-hundred-seventeen TV ads (mostly negative) that bombard me from my TV screen.

Or even the four-hundred-thirty-two-thousand-three-hundred-seventeen robo calls that hog my phone line. (Full Disclosure: I can't say the phone calls are negative, because I hang up as soon as I know it's a robo call.)

But, none of those things are why I know tomorrow is Election Day.

I know tomorrow is Election Day because it is so noted in our country's laws: 1st Tuesday after the 1st Monday in November.

One may wonder (and legitimately so) why on Earth the crafters of the Constitution and its many additions/amendments/laws/etc came up with such a convoluted way of assigning the date for holding national elections. Wouldn't a simple, static month/date designation suffice? Well, yes, if this weren't Government. But it is. So it won't.

Despite the notion that "It's the Government, Stupid," I needed a better explanation, so I went digging (as you regular readers knew I would), and here's what I found:

Why November?
National elections are widely believed to be held in November because back when the United States was a mainly agrarian society, this was the month when harvest was over, and so more folks would be free to get out and vote. Another reason was that holding elections in November, rather than later in winter, meant better weather for travel.

While these things probably had a lot to do with it, there is a more legislative reason. The United States Constitution stipulates only that the Electoral College (electors of the US President and Vice President in their respective states) should be chosen on the same day nationwide. It does not say that this has to be a particular date. So, in 1792, a law was passed mandating that presidential elections be held anytime in the 34 day period before the 1st Wednesday in December, which is the designated day for the Electoral College to meet and cast their votes. And that 34 day period, of course, places Election Day roughly in November.

Why 34 days before? So there was enough time to count the votes before a new congressional session began. Why the 1st Wednesday in December? No idea. That's another post for another time.

Does your head hurt yet? Keep reading. And have your headache med of choice handy.

Now, this 34 Days Before thing seemed fine and dandy, except that people began to realize that states which voted later in that 34 day period could be influenced by the candidates who won and lost in states which voted earlier. And this problem continued to grow as communication methods improved. Which brings us to:

Why Tuesday?
This one has a practical explanation, and a convoluted one. Of course.

The practical explanation is: people used to have to travel quite far in order to vote. Traveling by horse was the conveyance of choice (and necessity) in the mid-1800's. So, people needed time to travel. Then there were those who did not want to travel on religious rest days such as Sunday. So having an election on a Tuesday meant travel days of Monday and Wednesday, with a day in between to rest your horses, and no religious rest days involved.

The convoluted explanation is: to eliminate the influence problem of the 34 day window, Congress came up with a bill in 1844 to designate one single Election Day for all states, on the 1st Tuesday in November, in years divisible by 4.

Why divisible by four? Again, no idea. (Although personally, I think it's all a super-secret plot cooked up by headache medicine makers in order to send us running for the pharmacy shelves, thereby shooting their profits through the roof. Maybe.) Anyway, keep reading, 'cause we're not done yet. I haven't gotten to the part where the bill became a law. But not before it was tweaked.

Did you remember a glass of water to wash down that headache medicine?

OK. So Why the 1st Tuesday after the 1st Monday?
This one is also a two-parter.

Firstly, it's part of that whole reluctance-to-travel explanation: November 1st was and is a Catholic holy day (All Saints Day). Also, shopkeepers did their books for the preceding month on the first of the month, and would be reluctant to disrupt business to go vote. So if the 1st Tuesday fell on November 1st, or on the 1st business day of November, a significant number of citizens would opt not to vote.

Secondly, it's part of that whole "It's the Government, Stupid" thing. See, some smart soul (or someone with entirely too much time on his hands) discovered that the bill as it stood would render some years as having more than the prescribed 34 days from the 1st Tuesday in November through the 1st Wednesday in December, as set out in the 1792 law. And so, between the traveling issues and the business issues and the previous law, the obvious solution was to amend the bill to "1st Tuesday after the 1st Monday in November," which was voted into law in 1845.

But, wait. This isn't a presidential election.
No, it's not. But it is a National Election Day. It's just that, this time, we're electing congressmen and such. See, there is later legislation about the election of members of the House of Representatives (1872)*, and then after that about the election of Senators (1914). And somewhere in all of this legislation, it was noted that these elections would be held every two years, in even-numbered years. But further than that (for instance, why we're voting for governors tomorrow, along with the congressmen) I cannot say. Yet.

Besides, I'm all out of ibuprofin.

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*One source told me 1872, and one told me 1875. I haven't been able to find which is correct through my online research, but if you can point me in the right direction, please let me know via email or comments. All sources I used are below.