Holding Congressional elections after the start of Congress

Anyone with even a passing interest in politics knows that any general election just about anywhere in the country is held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, and then the victors have up to a few months to transition into their new office. It seems so obvious, so convenient, that anyone designing the system from scratch today would likely adopt a similar structure…right? Yet that’s not what the history of our state, or country, suggests.

Originally, local, state and Congressional elections in Indiana were held in August. Presidential elections were held in November (none of this was necessarily done on the same day as other states, and usually wasn’t). And then, after a decade and a half, a strange thing happened: In August of 1830, Indiana didn’t hold the regularly-scheduled Congressional election. Even though the 22nd Congress officially began on March 4, 1831, Hoosiers didn’t go to the polls to pick their U.S. Representatives for that Congress until August of 1831. And for the next 20 years, Indiana continually held Congressional elections five months after the start of each Congress, leaving the offices vacant for over 20% of each term.

The reason why has a lot to do with the rise of the modern political parties. Originally, the parties were established around presidential candidates. Realizing that Congressional elections were taking away attention and resources from the presidential race in 1828, partisans in the Indiana General Assembly moved the date of the next Congressional election, and all future elections, back an entire year.

So why would Indiana willingly go without Congressional representation for five months at the start of every Congress? I reached out to the U.S. House of Representative’s Office of the Historian for clarification. As it turns out, while the Constitution set Congressional terms to end each March, it didn’t say when those terms had to begin and only required meeting one day a year: The first Monday in December.

Accordingly, it quickly became the custom for Congress to hold their first meeting day of a Congress in December. For the 22nd Congress, which technically began on March 4, 1831, the first meeting day of Congress was December 5, 1831. Electing members in August of 1831 meant there was actually four months of lead time before elected members had to be in Washington. And if they had been elected in August 1830, the original timeframe for Congressional elections? Those members would have had to wait 16 months to cast their first votes as Representatives!

The Office of the Historian also pointed out Indiana wasn’t the only state to adopt this convention:

This practice was fairly widespread, with at least six other states holding elections in August in 1831 alone. Maryland held their elections on October 3 in 1831. In all of these cases, elections were generally held before the typical first meeting of the Congress in December. In 1831, specifically, Congress’s opening day was December 5. The Session Dates page on our website lists every Congress’s session dates and recesses.

If necessary, the President could call a special session of Congress before the first meeting in December. In such situations, Indiana would move up the date of the Congressional elections (as in 1841, when the election was held on May 3).

The situation would persist in Indiana until the state ratified a new constitution in 1851 that set the date of general elections for all offices (other than President) as the second Tuesday in October (thus moving Congressional races back to even-numbered years). Presidential elections were still held in November, and a federal law was enacted in 1845 required all states to hold Presidential elections on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. It wasn’t until 1872 that federal law would also require Congressional elections to also be held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of even-numbered years.

But it wouldn’t be until the Twentieth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1933 that Congress would begin each term with a meeting day on January 3, meaning for 62 years the entire country elected House members thirteen months before Congress was required to meet. Only 41 Congresses have operated under that uniform schedule, while the first 73 Congresses operated under election and session schedules that were quite varied. That means the system that seems so well-planned out now–where officials are elected in November, have a few months to transition, and begin work in January–took a long time, and several iterations, to figure out.

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