Back in the early 1800s voting on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November made perfect sense. In those days it was white land owning men (and later non-land owners) who could vote. We were an agrarian society and voting in early November gave voters a chance to wrap up the harvest while not getting caught up in blistery winters. The Tuesday part of our voting history also wasn’t random. In the early days polling places were not scattered around our neighborhoods, instead voting would take place in the county seat. At that time the United States was largely a rural society without motor vehicles and a day of travel had to be allotted for voters to get to the polling place. It couldn’t be Monday, since Sunday was the day to attend church, so the following day, Tuesday become our voting day so that Monday could be used as the day of travel.
Voting on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November maximized the number of people voting. This date made it as convenient as possible for the voters of that time. Two hundred years later however, it not only doesn’t make sense, but it disenfranchises people. Today most of our schedules are not dictated by planting seasons, but rather by eight to five, Monday through Friday work weeks. Because most countries realize that our modern-day work weeks can make casting a ballot difficult voting takes place on a weekend or if an election is held during the week that day is made a holiday.
In theory any of us can ask our employer for time off on election day to go and cast our ballot and it is the obligation of the employer to grant that request. But in practice think about a single mom who after 15 months of being unemployed finally lands a job and the last thing she wants to do is ask her already crabby boss if she can take Tuesday afternoon off to go vote. Tuesday voting in any month simply doesn’t make sense today and disadvantages those who aren’t their own boss, and these folks overwhelmingly tend to be folks with fewer resources.
I can understand that there is tradition attached to this date. I’m not arguing for ending voting on the second Tuesday in November. Instead, we can implement an early in-person, no excuse voting and vote by mail to make up for the disenfranchising nature of weekday voting. Why
In my home state of Texas early voting takes places several weeks before the November election. Unlike states such as Massachusetts where early in person voting requires a valid excuse, in Texas I don’t need one. I can just show up at any polling place as long as it’s in my county and some of these polling places even happen to be within grocery stores so that I can fulfill my civic duty and take care of the week’s shopping all at once. The downside however is that in Texas there is no mail in voting unless you are disabled or over 65. In contrast other states such as Oregon have all of their voting done by mail or in Colorado, for example you can sign up to receive a ballot by mail every election.
We have a patchwork of rules with some states allowing early voting or mail in voting, or a combination of the two or neither unless there is a valid excuse. The issue of insuring early voting and/or mail in voting however is of fundamental importance to ensuring the right to vote. Just as important as the issue of voter ID is the issue of when we can vote. Because of the nature of our federal system it is up to each of the individual states to provide for voting outside of the second Tuesday in November date. This in turn means that the push to further early voting is a lot more localized than we realize and comes down to letting our state legislatures know that early voting is what the United States needs in the 21st Century.
Dr. Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto is an NBC Latino and MSNBC contributor, Senior Analyst for Latino Decisions and Fellow at the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, at Austin.