(NOTE: This is a story Dennis Owens and I put together back in 2020, when there was a lot of complaining about the time it was taking to count ballots. It’s worth remembering there was a time when elections took much longer than they do today–and we should keep in mind that the official vote tallying doesn’t start until after the polls close, and even with electronic counting, it can still take a while.)
In the early years of the republic, electing a president was no one day affair. In fact, voting took over a month! The reason–what we now call infrastructure.
Back then, we didn’t have much.
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Paved roads were few, and primarily in cities. Most roads were dirt; many could best be described as glorified deer trails. Getting to a polling place, or taking ballots to a courthouse to be counted, could literally take days.
So the Federal Government allowed states thirty-four days to hold presidential elections, up until the first Wednesday in December. And that’s how elections worked until 1844.
Yet even in those early days, we felt the need for speed. By the early 1800s, we were improving roads, making for faster travel. We dug canals, artificial waterways that “unlocked” new routes. Steamboats could outsail sailing vessels-especially when the wind died. And the railroad, which would one day tie the country together from Atlantic to Pacific, started gaining traction in the 1820s.
But what ultimately killed the month-long election was a new, almost magical technology. It didn’t move people or goods. It moved information. In 1844, the same year as that last month-long election, Samuel Morse introduced the world to the telegraph.
For politicians, the implications were all too clear. The telegraph would make it all too easy for returns from one state on one day to influence the election results in another state in another day. So in 1845, Congress set a single day for presidential elections- the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.