How Voting on Tuesdays Helps Explain the Challenge of Sustainability

Keith Ivey/CC BY-NC 2.0

Why do we vote on Tuesdays?
With the 2012 election just days away, it's a important question to ask, not because it will change how we vote this year (it won't) or that the answer will even make sense (it won't!), but it's an important question to ask, because just asking that question is the first step towards creating a better way of doing things.

In this way, I think asking, "Why do we vote on Tuesdays?" is a good lead-in to discussing why we do so many of the unsustainable things that are the norm in our society.

Before I go too far in that direction, let me first back up and answer this Tuesday voting mystery.

The History of Voting on the First Tuesday of November
So, why do we vote on Tuesdays in November? The answer may surprise you: Horses, farming and God.

See, way back in 1845, Congress changed the voting laws in an apparent attempt to make things more convenient for voters. Since we were an agrarian society, many of these voters were farmers traveling from the country into the towns and cities to vote. Since, at that time, people believed God forbid traveling on Sunday, Tuesday was a good choice because it gave them Monday as a travel day. Wednesday was the day these farmers would sell their crops in the market, so Tuesday became election day. That's pretty much it.

Flash forward 167 years later and here we are still stuck with this system. Think about that.

For a better telling of this weird bit of history, watch this short TED Talk by Jacob Soboroff, who is the executive director of Why Tuesday?, a nonpartisan organization devoted to increasing voter turnout and participation in elections.

But, Why Do We Still Vote on Tuesday?
Once you've answered the question, "Why do we vote on Tuesdays?" the next logical question is "Why do we still vote on Tuesdays?" And that's what leads me into a bigger point about the challenges of creating a more sustainable society.

I think the reason we maintain this antiquated system for voting is clear. But before jumping into the reasons, let's recognize the downsides to this system.

Consider what is being lost by sticking with Tuesday voting.

In the video above, Soboroff presents the embarrassing statistic that voter turnout in America is one of the lowest in the world: 138th out of 172 nations.

In an column on Tuesday voting from January of this year, Soboroff wrote:

Since World War II, American voter turnout has averaged under 50% in federal elections. In 2008, with unprecedented excitement about the presidential campaign and record money spent by the candidates, voter turnout was about 64%, not a record, and a third of all eligible voters didn't make it to the polls. To understand the benefits to democracy of weekend voting, all you need to do is look at the nations with the highest voter turnout and realize they vote on weekends or national holidays.

In an America where 45 million 18- to 29-year-olds, the largest potential voting bloc in the country, are in school or at work all day, where single parents have to take care of their kids, and many of us, as much as we want to, are prevented by other obligations from making it to the polls in the middle of the week, it's clear it's time to move Election Day to the weekend.

So it is clear that Tuesday voting isn't the ideal solution for our modern time. So why do we stick with it? I think the reasons are clear: tradition, complacency and those in power wishing to maintain the status quo.

Were we to have our history and memory wiped clean and start fresh designing a system for voting that aimed at high participation and convenience for today's voter, there's no way we would settle on the first Tuesday of November. It just wouldn't happen.

Tradition is a powerful force for continuing habits, both good and bad. Ask someone about some of their family holiday traditions and you'll likely hear them say, "well, that's just how we've always done it."

That desire to maintain some familiarity in the form of tradition can also lead to complacency. When you bring this line of thinking to environmental or sustainability issues, you'll see that habit often trumps better or more practical solutions.

In all of these questions, the reasoning is a combination of factors, including maintaining tradition in the form of the status quo, that in most cases also happens to benefit the people and companies benefiting from that status quo.

Just like asking, "Why do we still vote on Tuesdays?" can help lead to a discussion on creating a more practical and equitable solution for voting, I think asking these questions about the practicality of our current ways of doing things is an important step in building a more sustainable society. The key, however, is not being complacent when we hear that something is the way it is simply because that's all anyone can remember doing. Whether it's changing your lightbulbs or changing the entire way we measure societal growth, change starts with someone asking, "why."

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Correction: the original copy accidentally referred to GDP as Growth Domestic Product, which is a really gross typo.

Tags: Activism