The United States is pretty old, and so are some of our voting traditions. Here's a list of some of our most unique practices and where they originated.
1. The Electoral College
Think the president is the guy who gets the most votes? Think again. The citizenry does not directly choose candidates, rather we choose electors for each state, who in turn, vote for our president.
Each state has a different number of electors, and therefore a different impact on the total election. The electoral college system in its original form was actually a compromise decided on in the 1787 Constitutional Convention, because small states feared they would be trampled on by larger states in presidential elections. A state's number of electors is mostly informed by their size, equaling their number of seats in Congress.
Therefore, the minimum number of electors for each state is three. But, because in most states, a candidate can win all of the electoral votes, by getting the majority of the popular vote, swing states like Ohio become incredibly important battleground to securing a victory. Meaning, if you live in Ohio, your vote may matter significantly more than it does in states like California or Mississippi.
In 1876, 1888, and 2000, the winner of the election was not the person who won the plurality of nationwide support. Read more here about the electoral college here.
2. Voting On Tuesday
Every four years, Americans vote for a new president on the first Tuesday (after the first Monday) of November. In 1845, it seemed like a good idea. The Federal Election Commission explains why we vote on Tuesday on their website:
"Since most residents of rural America had to travel a significant distance to the county seat in order to vote, Monday was not considered reasonable as many people would need to begin travel on Sunday. This would, of course, have conflicted with church services and Sunday worship."
And why the first Tuesday after the first Monday? FEC says, "Lawmakers wanted to prevent election day from falling on the first of November for two reasons. November 1st is All Saints Day, a holy day of obligation for Roman Catholics. In addition, most merchants were in the habit of doing their books from the preceding month on the first."
Now we honor the day out of tradition to the frustration of some groups, like Why Tuesday, which advocates voting on a non-working day so that more voters can make it to the polls.
3. Voting in November
Like the Tuesday thing, the November thing seems to be a bit outdated.
The Federal Election Commission explains that it was because America was once a "predominantly agrarian society" and this was the most convenient month of travel for those who harvested our food.
"Lawmakers took into account that November was perhaps the most convenient month for farmers and rural workers to be able to travel to the polls. The fall harvest was over, (remembering that spring was planting time and summer was taken up with working the fields and tending the crops) but in the majority of the nation the weather was still mild enough to permit travel over unimproved roads."
4. No Drinking and Voting
Since the 1787 Constitutional Convention, federal law has imposed few constraints on elections and left most smaller decisions up to the states -- creating an interesting patchwork of state-specific laws.