In 2020, U.S. Election Day falls on Tuesday, November 3. How much do—and don’t—you know? Here is a short history of Election Day and the right to vote. Plus, we have some trivia, fascinating facts, and common questions & answers to quiz yourself as well as your family and friends.
To-day, alike are great and small,
The nameless and the known;
My palace is the people’s hall,
The ballot-box, my throne!
–John Greenleaf Whittier, American poet (1807–92)
When Is U.S. Election Day 2020?
Election Day is always held on the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November.
In 2020, Election Day is Tuesday, November 3.
On this day, citizens cast ballots to select public officials—from local to national government.
- Presidential elections are held every four years, in years divisible by four.
- Elections to the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate are held every two years.
- Local officials can be voted into office any year that is designated by the state.
|2020||Tuesday, November 3|
|2021||Tuesday, November 2|
|2022||Tuesday, November 8|
|2023||Tuesday, November 7|
Note: All states allow you to vote absentee (“vote by mail”), although some states require you to provide a reason, such as that you’ll be out of town or you’re disabled. In 2020, given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many states have loosened restrictions on absentee voting. Check your state’s laws here. The majority of states also offer early voting in person prior to Election Day.
2020 Voting Resources
Voting is a fundamental part of the democratic process and must be accessible to all! Here are resources for Americans looking to vote:
- Register to Vote or Check Your Voter Registration Status
- Learn about Early Voting and Absentee Voting (“voting by mail”)
- Find out more about the election process in your state at your State’s Election Website
The Brief History of Election Day
On January 7, 1789, the electors were chosen for the first U.S. presidential election. (George Washington was elected president on February 4.)
By an act of Congress on January 23, 1845, the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November was designated Election Day for future presidential elections. Back then, we were more of an agricultural society and November was considered a good time for elections because the busy harvest season was coming to a close. Many country folks had to travel quite a long way to get to a polling station, so it made sense to hold elections on a Tuesday. This avoided religious holidays as well.
Before 1845, the states could hold presidential elections within a 34-day period and then send their electors to the Electoral College. However, this became problematic as communications and transportation evolved because states that voted earlier could influence states that voted later (not unlike earlier time zones versus later time zones today).
The first Election Day took place on November 7, 1848. Whig Party candidate Zachary Taylor won out over Democrat Lewis Cass and Free-Soil candidate (and former president) Martin Van Buren. Taylor’s running mate was Millard Fillmore, who became the nation’s 13th president on July 10, 1850, upon Taylor’s untimely death.
Read more about why elections are traditionally held in the fall in our article about the ancient Quarter-Days.
Election Day Cake!
Did you know that there is a such thing as an Election Day Cake? Often yeasted fruit cakes, Election Day cakes started in the 1600s and were especially popular around the time of American independence.
Try making it this year with our Election Day Cake recipe!
Election Day Questions and Answers
Here are some Almanac reader questions—with answers from your editors!
Question: Is Election Day a federal holiday?
Answer: No, it is not. However, Election Day has been declared a civic holiday by many states including Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, West Virginia, and the territory of Puerto Rico. It is usually a day that the state legislature declares as a non-working day (when government offices and the court systems are closed).
Question: When were women given the right to vote in the United States?
Answer: Women were given the right to vote on August 26, 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified. Formerly known as Woman Suffrage Day, August 26 is now recognized as “Women’s Equality Day.” Ratification came in Tennessee, where suffragist (Anitia) Lili Pollitzer, age 25, persuaded Tennessee state legislator Harry T. Burn, age 24, to cast the deciding vote. “I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow,” he said, “and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.” The country’s 26 million voting-age women were enfranchised by this change in the Constitution. Longtime suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt summed up her experiences in the battle this way: “Never in the history of politics has there been such a nefarious lobby as labored to block the ratification.” Upon ratification, Catt founded the League of Women Voters, an organization now dedicated to providing impartial, in-depth information about candidates, platforms, and ballot issues.
Question: Which U.S. president has received the greatest number of electoral votes?
Answer: Ronald Reagan, in the 1984 election, won a whopping 525 out of 538 available electoral votes.
Question: Which U.S. president has received the greatest number of popular votes?
Answer: That distinction goes to Barack Obama, who received 69.5 million votes in the 2008 election.
Question: Can you explain the electoral college?
Answer: The U.S. Constitution decrees that a “body of electors” will choose the president and vice president of the country. These electors are appointed by each state, through varying methods depending upon the state, as decided by each state’s legislature. The number of electoral votes allotted to each state depends on the number of Senators and Representatives to which each state is entitled; Congress has 100 Senators and 435 Representatives. Each state is allotted 1 electoral vote for each Senator (for a total of 2) and 1 electoral vote for each Representative. The number of Representatives each state has is based on its population. The District of Columbia is allotted 3 electoral votes. This yields a total of 538 electoral votes. Electors vote in their respective states in December. Most vote according to popular vote or to their pledge to their party (although in some states, they are not required to do so). In 48 states, the presidential candidate who receives a majority of the vote takes all of the state’s electoral votes. However, in Nebraska and Maine, the setup is different, and electoral votes can be split between candidates. Congress counts the electoral votes, now merely a formality, on January 6. The presidential candidate who receives a majority (270) of the 538 Electoral College votes wins the election.
Question: What were the symbols for the Republicans and Democrats before they were an elephant and a donkey?
Answer: Although Thomas Nast, a caricaturist and illustrator for Harper’s Weekly, created and made famous our current symbols for the parties—the Democratic donkey in 1870 and the Republican elephant in 1874—there was an earlier symbol for Democrats. During the election of 1840, between the Democrats and the Whigs (the Republican party as we know it didn’t exist until 1854), the Whigs derided a Democratic candidate for Congress in Indiana, Joseph Chapman, with the slogan “Crow, Chapman, Crow!” However, Chapman crowed so successfully that he won the seat (though the Whigs were triumphant elsewhere). In Chapman’s honor, the Democrats adopted the rooster as their symbol.
Question: Who is credited with saying, “Americans will go across an ocean to fight a war, but not across the street to vote”?
Answer: The full quote is, “A citizen of America will cross the ocean to fight for democracy, but won’t cross the street to vote in a national election.” It is credited to William E. (‘Bill’) Vaughan, a 20th-century author and columnist.
The Right to Vote
- February, 1870: The U.S. Congress passes and the states ratify the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting African-American men the right to vote.
- 1890: Wyoming was the first state to grant women the right to vote, followed by Colorado in 1893.
- October 23, 1915: 25,000 women marched in NYC demanding the right to vote.
- August, 1920: The Nineteenth Amendment was adopted, granting women from every state the right to vote. It was nicknamed the “Anthony” amendment in recognition of the lobbying efforts of suffragette Susan B. Anthony. The amendment was adopted just in time for the 1920 presidential election. See a full timeline of women’s suffrage.
- March 29, 1961: Ratification of the 23rd amendment to the Constitution gave residents of Washington, D.C., the right to vote in presidential elections.
- August, 1965: President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act to outlaw states’ discriminatory voting practices, especially with African Americans in the South.
- July 1971: The 26th Amendment reduced the voting age in the United States from 21 to 18 years of age. The first 18-year-olds voted in the 1972 elections.
- March, 1993: The “motor-voter” bill was signed by President Bill Clinton, allowing citizens to register to vote when applying for a driver’s license and ease voter registration.
Election Day Amusement
Here is an election-day palindrome for your amusement:
Rise to vote, sir.
Let Us Know
Do you think Election Day should be a holiday? Should it be kept on a Tuesday, or maybe moved to a weekend? Let us know what you think in the comments below!