In the United States, Election Day must by law take place on the Tuesday falling after the first Monday in the month of November. This means that the date can be anywhere between November 2 and 8.
As well as being the day when Americans choose their President, all levels of national, state and local government official also get voted for.
Exactly 220 years ago this year (1792), a law gave every state the right to hold elections for the president any time in the 34 days ahead of the first Wednesday in December, when each state held its Electoral College.
And, traditionally, November was considered a good time, before winter storms started to hit (perhaps ironic given 2012’s Hurricane Sandy) but after the harvest had been gathered.
As telegraphs and trains arrived, it became necessary to have just one date for an election, since the earliest results could impact upon the later ones held in the 34 day period.
Congress agreed to have one day for voting in 1845, on the day after November’s first Monday, so 34 days no longer needed to elapse before the first Wednesday in December.
Historically, a Tuesday was considered to be a good day of the week, since no-one would have to travel to vote on the Sabbath. Equally, in many rural areas, all of Monday would have been needed for travelling to the ballot box under horse power. Had a Wednesday been chosen, this could have interfered with market day in many areas.
However, there are activists who have campaigned against a weekday Election Day, arguing that people won’t vote if they have to be at work, and suggesting ballots should be open over at least two days.
But although the day of a presidential election is not a public holiday, in a handful of states it is observed as an annual or two-yearly day off. And in some states you are legally entitled to take off from your place of work to vote, and, sometimes, you have the right to do so without losing pay.
For example, in California, if you would otherwise be unable to cast your vote, you can do so in the two hours at the end or start of a shift on full pay.
Many states have introduced early voting to allow the electorate to cast their votes early, often as much as a month ahead of election Tuesday. There are also systems in place for voting as an absentee voter.
For the election of the President, Vice President, and the US Congress, Election Day is held in evenly numbered years only. Presidential voting takes place on years which can be evenly divided by four, every four years.
Elections for the US Senate and House of Representatives occur every couple years, so no Representative serves longer than two years without being re-elected. Senators hold office for six years, but things are staggered so that in any general election, one in three Senators will be elected.
A number of state and local government offices are also voted for on Election Day in the interests of efficiency.
The successful presidential candidate is not sworn in and does not take power for a couple of months – Inauguration Day is usually on January 20.