Election Day 2016: A Guide to the When, Why, What and How

hillary clinton and donald trump shake hands
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton shake hands after the Presidential Debate at Hofstra University on Sept. 26, 2016, in Hempstead, New York. (Image credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Americans will head to the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 8, to decide whether Republican candidate Donald Trump or Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton will become the next president of the United States. (Of course, there are "third-party" candidates as well: Jill Stein and Gary Johnson). 

But how exactly did the world's most powerful democracy decide on the rules for electing the highest office in the land? It turns out that while the practice of electing American political representatives may be older than George Washington, the trappings and rituals of current election days are much more modern.

Below is a look at the what, where, when and how of Election Day, including details on its history, some common myths, as well as interesting facts about the venerable tradition.

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Why do Americans vote on Tuesdays?

Though Americans have been voting in presidential elections since George Washington was chosen as the first president, in 1788, Tuesday didn't become the official election day until Jan. 23, 1845, when the 28th Congress voted for a uniform election day for president. [7 Great Dramas in Congressional History]

The law doesn't specify the first Tuesday in the month, but rather, the Tuesday after the first Monday.

"Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that the electors of president and vice president shall be appointed in each state on the Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November of the year in which they are to be appointed," the law states.

As for why the representatives chose a Tuesday rather than a weekend, it helps to remember that the United States was a very different place back then. Many Americans were farmers and thought Friday, Saturday and Sunday were for worship, honoring the Sabbath and spending time with family, not for binge-watching Netflix and running errands. Because traveling on horse (the main mode of transportation at the time) to the county seat to vote could take a day, the election needed to be on a day that allowed people one day to travel, another one to vote and a third to head back before the Sabbath, according to WhyTuesday.org, a nonprofit organization that is seeking to change election day to a weekend.

The midweek election day became enshrined as Election Day in 1875 and 1914, when Congress voted to make congressional and senate elections, respectively, occur on the same Tuesday, according to WhyTuesday.org.

Why isn't Election Day a holiday?

This Nov. 8, arguably the world's most powerful person will be elected to the highest office in the land; but for most Americans, the day is rather humdrum, with people rushing off to work and school. [5 Influential Leaders Who Transformed the World]

So why isn't this important day a federal holiday?

It turns out, various people have pushed for a so-called "Voting Day" or "Democracy Day" over the years. For instance, in 2005, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan put forward a bill to make the election day a national holiday. The bill didn't pass, which is why Americans still head to the polls before rushing off to work.

The impetus behind voting-holiday measures is to increase voter turnout. The U.S. has one of the lowest voter turnouts of developed democracies in the world, with only 53.6 percent of the eligible voting population coming out for the presidential election in 2012, as compared with 87.6 percent in Belgium and 84.3 percent in Turkey, according to the Pew Research Center. Those stats make Americans seem like political slackers, but the numbers are somewhat misleading, because both Belgium and Turkey have compulsory voting, Pew said. Yet even countries where voting is voluntary often have higher turnout than the United States, depending on the issue or election. For instance, the Brexit Referendum on whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union drew 72 percent of eligible voters, according to Pew.

However, it's not clear that switching voting day to a weekend or a holiday would boost participation, said a 2009 working paper by Henry Farber, a researcher at Princeton University in New Jersey. By studying the impact on voter turnout of state policies that grant paid voting holidays, the study found that a national paid holiday for voting would not significantly boost voter turnout, and could have downsides.

"The economic cost of such a holiday is substantial, particularly understanding that the act of voting is 1) generally not very time-consuming (at least compared with the length of a workday) and 2) that the polls are generally open from early morning until late evening," Farber wrote in the paper.

How long are the polls open?

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - SEPTEMBER 23: A woman votes early at the Downtown Early Vote Center on September 23, 2016 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Minnesota residents can vote in the general election every day until Election Day on November 8. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images) (Image credit: Stephen Maturen / Stringer)

The polls tend to open early in the morning and stay open late to accommodate people's work schedules, but the exact hours vary by state and county. People who want to make sure they do their civic duty should check their state election websites for details.

(The U.S. Election Assistance Commission has an online resource with links to state election websites where you can register and get more details on voting in your state.)

Early birds can reach the polls as early as 5 a.m. ET in some parts of Vermont and 6 a.m. MT in Arizona, while some polling places in New Hampshire won't open until 11 a.m. ET this year. In general, most polling places will be open by 7 a.m., according to Ballotpedia.

Polls close at 6 p.m. in Indiana and at 9 p.m. in Iowa, though most states close the stations and start the vote count somewhere between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.  

The polls may also close at different times in the same state. For instance, in Tennessee, polls using the Central Standard Time (CST) zone close at 7 p.m., while those in the Eastern Standard Time (EST) zone close at 8 p.m., according to Ballotpedia. (Daylight saving time ends this year on Sunday, Nov. 6.) And voters in Oregon or Washington who are looking to drop their votes in a ballot box may be disappointed: Those two states rely completely on mail-in votes and have no polling hours, though people who wish to vote in person can go to a local municipal clerk's office in Oregon, according to Ballotpedia.

Find your polling place by state: Alabama Alaska Arizona Arkansas California Colorado Connecticut Delaware Florida Georgia Hawaii Idaho Illinois Indiana Iowa Kansas Kentucky Louisiana Maine Maryland Massachusetts Michigan Minnesota Mississippi Missouri Montana Nebraska Nevada New Hampshire New Jersey New Mexico New York North Carolina North Dakota Ohio Oklahoma Oregon Pennsylvania Rhode Island South Carolina South Dakota Tennessee Texas Utah Vermont Virginia Washington Washington, D.C. West Virginia Wisconsin Wyoming

How are votes tallied?

Soon after you've touched an electronic screen, ticked off the boxes and mailed in your vote or dropped the envelop in the ballot box, the results from individual precincts start coming in. But how exactly are the votes tallied?

PROVO-UT - MARCH 22: A record number of paper ballots are turned in at the Democratic Caucuses at Farrer Junior High in Provo, Utah on March 22, 2016. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images) (Image credit: George Frey/Getty Images)

It turns out, there are no official federal guidelines for vote tallying, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Instead, a patchwork of state and local laws dictate the process.

No matter what, however, local election officials are in charge of the count. As soon as the polls close, some combination of permanent election officials, poll workers hired to work on Election Day and election office staff who are part-time get to work.

For paper ballots, workers will typically record how many spoiled or unused ballots are present. They then look at the voter rolls, or a list of registered voters, and count how many people said they voted, before opening the ballot boxes to make sure the numbers match.

The workers then sort the ballots into piles for each candidate or party and count the ballots, according to the ACE Electoral Knowledge Network. Finally, contested votes (for instance, ones in which the vote is unclear or someone has voted twice) are set aside. As long as election officials can determine the voter's intent, the ballot is counted, but if not, it is sent up the food chain for a higher official to take a look.

Once the vote count is finished, a final reconciliation of the vote is performed, in whichofficials go back over their count. Next, a certificate, which records the tallies, is signed and sent to a local office for secure storage in case a recount is called.

When mail-in ballots are added to the mix, things can get even more complicated. Mail-ins can fuel a flurry of provisional ballots, in which there is some uncertainty about who is voting and where the individual's polling place is. That requires election officials to look at the voter's record and compare the ballot's signer with a database of voters to make sure the same person didn't cast a ballot somewhere else, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The process — checking the address on file with the one on the envelope, inspecting signatures on the mail-in envelope and making sure a person voted in the right precinct — can take up to a half-hour per ballot, said the Los Angeles Times. When one factors in that there can be tens of thousands of these provisional ballots, it becomes clear why recalls, in which recounts are needed, take so long.

Myths and interesting facts

  • When the United States came into existence, the federal government did not spell out who was allowed to vote. In 1789, only 6 percent of the population — a group that consisted mostly of white, male property-owners — voted in the election to make George Washington the first president, according to the government archives. Only in 1870 did former male slaves gain the right to vote, with women entering the voter ranks in 1920 after passage of the 19th amendment. American Indians got the right to vote only after Congress passed a law in 1924, according to the archives.

Painted by Gilbert Stuart and Rembrandt Peale Housed at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass.
  • In his first campaign, in the 1750s, George Washington lost to his opponent for a spot in the Virginia House of Burgesses, a loss that he attributed to not providing enough alcohol to his constituents. To remedy the situation, he spent his entire campaign budget in 1758 on more than 100 gallons of booze, according to "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition" (Scribner, 2011) by Daniel Okrent. Washington won that second election. Though technically illegal, plying constituents with alcohol was widespread practice in the early days of the republic, Okrent wrote.
  • While the secret ballot is enshrined in the voting process today, in the earliest days of the republic, public shouts of "yea" or "nay" sufficed to count as a person's vote. The secret ballot, also called the Australian ballot, was introduced in the country only in 1884. As late as 1950, Georgia held onto the public ballot.
  • Laws that disenfranchise criminals have roots going back to ancient Greece. In Britain, people convicted of being outlaws could be stripped of their voting rights. And at the time of the United States' founding, 29 states legally prohibited convicts from voting, according to a 2004 article in the Fordham Urban Law Journal. Many of these early disenfranchisement laws had to do with "morality" crimes like drunkenness. After the Civil War, felon disenfranchisement expanded dramatically, particularly in Southern states.

"Some Southern states passed laws disenfranchising those convicted of what were considered to be 'black' crimes, while those convicted of 'white' crimes did not lose their right to vote. For example, South Carolina disenfranchised criminals convicted of 'thievery, adultery, arson, wife beating, housebreaking and attempted rape,' but not those convicted of murder or fighting," the article said.  

  • Mechanical-lever voting machines were introduced in the 1890s, and as recently as 1996, 20 percent of Americans voted in that way. Nowadays, however, no one in the U.S. votes using mechanical-lever voting devices, according to VerifiedVoting.org. Punch-card voting machines, responsible for the "hanging chad" controversy that led to a recall in the 2000 presidential election, are almost extinct as well, with just a few counties in the country using them. Most people use either optical scan paper ballots or electronic ballots, while those with impairments may be given specialized ballot-marking devices.
  • Being in a far-off land is no disqualification for voting. Not only can people who live abroad vote, but astronauts living on the International Space Station can vote as well. Mission control sends a digital version of the ballet to the space-dwellers, and the astronauts return the filled-out ballot using the same method. "The first American to vote in a presidential election from space was Leroy Chiao, who did it while commanding the International Space Station's Expedition 10 mission in 2004," Space.com reported.
  • Until 1804, the runner-up in the presidential election automatically became vice president. However, once people realized what it meant to have two opponents working together (Clinton/Trump ticket anyone?), Congress ratified the 12th Amendment, which lays out how the electoral college elects the president and vice president today.

Editor's Note: This story was updated to note that former male slaves gained the right to vote in 1870.

Original article on Live Science.

Tia Ghose
Managing Editor

Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Wired.com and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.