Federal law in the United States requires that the presidential election be held every four years on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. In modern society that seems like an arbitrary time to hold an election, but it makes a lot of sense in the context of the 1800s.
In the early decades of the United States, the date for the election of the president would be set by the individual states. Those various election days, however, almost always fell in November.
The reason was simple: under an early federal law, the electors for the electoral college were to meet in the individual states on the first Wednesday of December. And according to a 1792 federal law, the elections in the states (which would choose the electors) had to be held within a 34-day period before that day.
Holding elections in November made good sense in an agrarian society, as the harvest would have been concluded. And the harshest winter weather would not have arrived yet, which was a consideration for those who had to travel to a polling place.
In a practical sense, having the presidential election held on different days in different states was not a major concern in the early years of the 1800s. Communication was slow, and as it took days or weeks for election results to become known, it didn't matter in any practical way if states held elections at different times.
As communication improved with the advent of the railroad and the telegraph, it seemed obvious that elections results in one state could influence the voting yet to occur in another. And as transportation improved, there was also the fear that voters could travel from state to state and participate in multiple elections.
In the early 1840s Congress decided to make a standardized date for holding presidential elections across the country.
Congress Standardized Election Day in 1845
In 1845 Congress passed a law establishing that the day for choosing presidential electors (in other words, the day for the popular vote that would determine the electors of the electoral congress) would be every four years on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.
That formulation was chosen to fall within the time frame determined by the aforementioned 1792 law.
And making the election the first Tuesday after the first Monday also ensured that the election would never be held on November 1, which is All Saints Day, a Catholic holy day of obligation. There is also a legend that merchants in the 1800s tended to do their bookkeeping on the first day of the month, and scheduling an important election on that day would thereby interfere with business.
Why Hold the Presidential Election on a Tuesday?
The choice of a Tuesday is most likely because elections in the 1840s were generally held at county seats, and people in outlying areas would have to travel from their farms into town to vote. Tuesday was chosen as people could begin their travels on a Monday, and thus avoid traveling on the Sunday sabbath.
Holding important national elections on a weekday seems anachronistic in the modern world, and it's no doubt true that Tuesday voting tends to create obstacles and discourages participation.
The introduction of early voting procedures in many American states in recent elections has addressed the problem of having to vote on a specific weekday. But, generally speaking, the tradition of voting for the president every four years on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November has continued uninterrupted since the 1840s.
Gratitude is expressed to the New York Public Library Digital Collections for the use of the illustration of a polling place in New York City.