Understanding Election Day In America

Understanding Election Day In America

By Alex Brinkman

On Tuesday, November 3, citizens from all around the nation will participate in voting for various local and state offices. Four states- Louisiana, Mississippi, Virginia, and New Jersey- will be holding elections for state legislatures and three- Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi- will be voting in gubernatorial elections. In addition, over forty major cities across the country will be electing new mayors in this election cycle. In the state of Indiana, Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, among several others, will be holding mayoral elections today. The Indianapolis mayoral race between federal attorney Joe Hogsett (Democrat) and former US Marine Chuck Brewer (Republican) follows a decision by standing mayor Greg Ballard not to seek re-election to a third term. This spring, both Hogsett and Brewer were nominated by an overwhelming majority of their party’s primary voters with a total voter turnout of around 48,000 for the primary elections. In addition to the two major candidates, independent Sam Carson is leading a write-in campaign for Tuesday’s election, though he is expected to have very limited success.

This year’s general elections constitute what is known as an off-year election in the American political system. These elections always fall on an odd-numbered year and tend to involve a limited number of races, primarily municipal. Only five states hold gubernatorial elections on off-years, and federal-level officials are never elected on off-years, with the exception of certain special elections. In contrast, even-numbered years (midterm and presidential years) involve the election of many governors and high-level state officials and representatives, all members of the House of Representatives, one-third of the Senate, and, on years whose number is a multiple of four, the President of the United States. As a result of these cycles in the American electoral system, voter turnout on off-years tends to be far lower than on midterm and presidential years, as evidenced by the low turnout of the Indianapolis mayoral primaries earlier this spring. Often, turnout for races on off-years averages slightly over twenty percent in comparison to around forty percent for midterm years and sixty for presidential years. However, despite the decreased participation in off-year elections, the processes involved in voting itself are no different than that of other general elections in the United States.

In the United States, Election Day occurs on the Tuesday following the first Monday in the month of November for all general elections. This does not necessarily mean that Election Day occurs on the first Tuesday of November, as it must be preceded by a Monday in the month of November. Thus, the earliest possible date on which Election Day can occur is November 2 and the latest is November 8. When this uniform date was established by Congress in 1845, it was initially applied only to presidential elections. However, this method has since been applied to nearly all general elections in the United States. Prior to the creation of this system, each state was permitted to hold its general election anytime in a 34-day period prior to the first Wednesday in December, the day on which the Electoral Colleges met in each state on presidential years. However, this method proved to have several key issues, including the fact that the result of elections in states whose voting was held earlier in the 34-day period could influence voting in the later states. Thus the new method was established in 1845 and remains in place to this day.

Possible reasons as to why Congress chose the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November are varied, but it is primarily traced to the nature of America’s agrarian society at the time. Most citizens lived in rural areas and were forced to travel at least one day on poorly maintained roads to reach their polling location. As a result, elections could not be held on Monday without interfering with the Christian Sabbath Day, nor could they be held on Wednesday or Thursday, as market day traditionally fell on Wednesdays in most towns and villages. In addition, by holding elections early in the month of November, this allowed farmers to vote after the busy harvest season had ended, but before winter storms made travel on unpaved roads impossible.

Today, many groups and individuals oppose the nature of the current system due to the fact that a majority of modern Americans tend to work on Tuesdays. Those in opposition to the current electoral system frequently claim that its requirement for Election Day to be held on a Tuesday decreases voter turnout. However, most states have created at least some form of voting accommodations for eligible registered voters who cannot vote in the customary manner. For instance, 33 states and the District of Columbia (D.C.) allow early voting with no excuse or justification, and all states allow absentee voting by mail, though some require an excuse for such voting. In addition, certain businesses permit their employees to leave work early or come in late without loss of pay on Election Day to allow them a window of time in which to vote. There have also been government attempts to mandate that time off for voting is allowed, and a federal holiday coinciding with Election Day known as Democracy Day was proposed but has not been implemented.

Regardless of the methods or procedures and their affiliated controversies, thousands of people all across the nation will turn out today to participate in the democratic process, including here in Indianapolis. While supported by many, opposed by some, and fully understood by few, Election Day is undeniably one of the most unique and significant aspects of the American political system.

Image: http://mediad.publicbroadcasting.net/p/kera/files/201310/shutterstock_70866406.jpg


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