The History of Election Day
Posted May 26, 2005 at 02:00pm by Chronicler
PolitixUSA asked me the question "Why do we hold our elections in November in the USA? Any significant reason for the tradition?"
I thought that my response might be of interest to others, so I am posting it here with some minor modifications.
The answer is a little complicated. In the early days of the Republic, elections in the various states were held in different parts of the year. For example, elections for the 15th Congress began with Louisiana on 7/1/1816 and ended with North Carolina on 8/14/1817 - over a year later. The other states were scattered in between, throughout the year.
The first step towards establishing a uniform day for elections occurred in 1791. That year, Congress mandated that presidential electors would be chosen in October or November, cast the electoral votes in December, and have the electoral votes read in a joint session of Congress in either January or February. [The votes were read by the lame duck session of Congress, not the new Congress.] Congress did not establish a particular day for choosing electors, and from 1792 until 1844 the presidential election was held on various days in different states.
In 1845, Congress mandated that the states would choose presidential electors on the day that we now call election day, but states continued to hold other elections according to their earlier schedules. In 1848, for example, only four states held elections for U.S. House on the same day as the presidential election.
At the time, many states did not hold their elections for Congress until after the term technically began. North Carolina was one of several states that usually held U.S. House elections in August of odd-numbered years, five months after the term technically began but four months before Congress assembled. Here is a summary of the problem: the election for the 50th Congress was held (in most states) on 11/2/1886, the beginning of the term was 3/4/1887, and Congress did not assemble until 12/5/1887. Occasionally, someone elected to the U.S. House would die before Congress even assembled since the election and inauguration day were so separated.
In 1871, Congress mandated that all states shift their elections for the U.S. House to the date appointed for the selection of presidential electors. The states I am most familiar with moved their state elections to the presidential election day in the late 1800s in order to get the whole thing over with at one time. Other states balked initially. Maine held out the longest, not making its shift from September to November until 1960.
When Hoover was president, he worked with Congress to streamline the election timeline. They decided to shift the day Congress assembled from December (13 months after being elected) to January (2 months after being elected). They did not shift election day. This took a constitutional amendment. Beginning with 1935, the day that congressional terms began and the day Congress assembled has been the same.