On Tuesday, November 7, 1848, Americans went to the polls and elected Zachary Taylor to the White House on the first nationwide presidential Election Day. Before then, Election Day varied from state to state. Federal law required only that states hold it sometime during a thirty-four-day period before the first Wednesday in December, when the Electoral College met.
As trains and telegraph wires brought speedier communication, officials grew concerned that people in late-voting states would be influenced by results in early-voting states. So Congress designated the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, in years divisible by four, as the day for electing the president.
Why that particular time? According to the Federal Election Commission, November was a good month for voting in a mainly agrarian republic. The autumn harvest was over, so farmers had more time to go to the polls. In most places in early November, the weather was still mild enough to get over rough roads.
Why Tuesday? People often had to travel a good distance to reach the county seat where they voted. Monday did not make a good Election Day since it would require some people to begin traveling on Sunday, which would interfere with church activities. So lawmakers went with Tuesday.
Why the Tuesday after the first Monday? One explanation is that lawmakers wanted to make sure Election Day never fell on the first of November, All Saints Day, a holy day for Catholics. But the main reason was that in some years, the first Tuesday in November would fall more than thirty-four days before the first Wednesday in December, when the Electoral College met. Lawmakers therefore chose the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, so as not to conflict with existing law.