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Elections are the bedrock of democratic societies, representing a fundamental mechanism through which citizens exercise their constitutional right to participate in governance. In fact, the concept of universal suffrage, which is the right of all adults to vote regardless of gender, race, social status, education or wealth hasn’t always been popular. The history of elections has been marked by gradual but significant milestones, from the restriction of voters to property-owning men to suffrage movements in the 19th and 20th centuries that lobbied for more racial, gender and social status inclusivity. Each milestone represents a hard-won fight for equality and there have been continued efforts to uphold and maintain fairness, transparency, public participation and equitable governance.

In the United States of America, elections are traditionally held on Tuesdays, a practice dating back to the 19th century, when some of the larger states like Texas were not even part of the union. However, this is not the norm globally. In India, dubbed the largest democracy in the world, voting takes place in phases to cater for the large population. For example, in 2019, elections in India were held over seven phases from 11 April to 19 May. On the other hand, Norway considered one of the most advanced democracies in the world, c ranking first in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy index (EIU 2022), holds its parliamentary elections on the second Monday of September every four years. Countries like Canada and the UK hold elections on Mondays and Thursdays respectively, while many others including Australia and New Zealand prefer weekends. This raises the question why there is such diversity in the days chosen to hold elections among democracies, the rationale behind it, and whether or not this has an impact on voter turnout and engagement.

American voting traditions date back to even before the two world wars. In 1845, congress was faced with the task of coming up with a day for the country to vote in presidential and congress elections. In an era when many Americans were farmers, it was imperative to find a time that did not interrupt the busy spring ploughing season and summer harvesting months. It was noted that there was a gap in November when most crops were off the fields and the weather still conducive to travel; without a developed road transport network, and the horse-and-buggy being the most common means of transport available, travelling in winter would be difficult.

Moreover, voting took place in cities yet a majority of the population lived at least a night’s journey away from the voting stations. In a deeply religious time, with the church having considerable influence over people’s lives, it was necessary to factor in the time for people to attend church. A middle ground was found: allow people to attend church on Sunday, travel on Monday, vote on Tuesday and return home by Wednesday. In order not to interfere with religious practice, the first Tuesday of November was skipped in case it was the 1st of November – All Saints Day for the Roman Catholic Church – and election day was officially set on the second Tuesday of November. This tradition has been upheld since 1845 even though a majority of the population are no longer farmers and modern means of transport have rendered access to polling stations is easy; there has been no significant need for a change of polling date over the years.

Canada votes on a Monday, a tradition dating back to the 20th century. The Canada Elections Act states that federal elections are to be held on the third Monday of October in the fourth calendar year following the previous federal election. This is aimed at providing administrative convenience and creating a balance between work and leisure days, encouraging a high voter turnout. The UK has a long-standing voting system from the 1930s that favours Thursdays. In the past this was to avoid market days which took place earlier in the week and presently coincide with the end of the working week, allowing for ease of administration and processing of results. Some countries like France, Australia and Germany opt for weekends to ensure high voter turnout as weekends are not working days for a majority of the population. 

The history of elections in Kenya, a growing democracy, has been nothing short of turbulent. The first elections in Kenya in which Africans could participate took place on 20 March 1957 to elect eight Africans to the Legislative Council. The next Kenyan election takes us directly to the post-colonial era, a culmination of the decades-long struggle for independence; the May 1963 elections were the first general elections held in preparation for independence from British colonial rule. Almost six years later, in December 1969, the country went into elections as a republic, with the Kenya African National Union (KANU), the sole legal party, taking all the seats. 

Daniel arap Moi succeeded the founding president, the late Jomo Kenyatta, who died in office on 22 August 1978. The constitution at the time provided for the vice president to automatically take office in the event of the death of the seating president. Moi’s accession to the presidency would mark the beginning of a dark period for the young democracy. Endorsed by KANU in the 1979 general election, Moi ran unopposed, cementing his position and ushering in a period of opposition suppression, crack down on any dissenting voices, detention without trial, harassment of critics and activists, and a 1982 constitutional amendment declaring Kenya a one-party state by law. This prompted the failed 1982 coup by a section of the air force. The country was thrown into trepidation and uncertainty with those considered political enemies bearing the brunt of the president’s anger. This situation would prevail for ten years.

The December 1992 elections would bring significant change, spurred by the 1991 repeal of Section 2A of the constitution that enshrined the one-party system and the return of multiparty democracy. However, the change was not immediately felt, with KANU still winning a majority of the seats and Moi remaining the president in an election marred by gross irregularities. Opposition grew with the return to multiparty democracy, and the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) was formed as a political vehicle to unify the opposition and give voice to the rising dissatisfaction with the government. The opposition would win the 27 December 2002 general election by a landslide victory, ending KANU’s 39-year rule.

It is important to note that the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK), the country’s first electoral commission, chaired by Justice Zacchaeus Chesoni, was formed only in 1992, decades after independence, and mandated with an oversight role in the conduct of elections, voter registration and resolution of electoral disputes. This was in response to the increased demand for democratic reforms and transparency in elections. Previously, an electoral office within the office of the attorney general was in charge of these processes and was often accused of impartiality, electoral malpractice and bias, creating the need for an autonomous and independent commission.

Interestingly, before the constitutional reforms marked by the promulgation of the Constitution of Kenya 2010, the power to set the election date and dissolve parliament was vested in the president; the president could set the date at his discretion within the limits of the constitutional five-year election cycle. However, the absence of a fixed date allowed the incumbent president to choose any date within the election year, which enabled them to strategically use the timing of the election to their advantage, either by setting a date they believed would maximise their chance of re-election or minimise the opposition’s preparedness. This political weapon was wielded like an unforgiving sword to the chagrin of many; a rumour regarding the uncertainty of the election date had the potential to create unrest and misguide the public to the benefit of the wielder. Unsurprisingly, this provision was scrapped during the constitutional reforms; Articles 101 and 102 of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 provide that the general election will be held on the second Tuesday of August every fifth year following the last election.

Statistically, election dates – among other factors – do significantly impact voter turnout and engagement. Studies show that, in the absence of voting traditions, weekday elections – particularly those held midweek – tend to have a lower turnout compared to weekend elections. This is associated with the inconvenience of voting on a workday which affects working hours or other commitments. In a money-driven society where most workers are paid by the hour, exercising one’s democratic right by voting holds no candle to an extra dollar on the paycheck. Countries that opt for weekend elections, like France and Germany, or those that make election day a holiday, enjoy a significantly higher turnout due to the lack of or minimal conflict in schedules. The impact of how the election date in the United States affects voter engagement is rarely studied due to its long-standing tradition. However, related complementary data such as early voting and mail-in voting have been shown to affect turnout. Data from the 2022 US elections shows that only about 49 per cent of votes were cast in person, with a majority of voters opting to vote early or by mail to mitigate the constraints imposed by weekday voting. 

While specific data on turnout variations by the day of the week is limited, the general consensus is that non-week elections or the provision of alternative voting methods enhance voter turnout by increasing convenience for a major part of the population. Experts argue that structural reforms and voter education are crucial for improving voter turnout regardless of the date. In the US, reforms like automatic voter registration and expanded early voting are often cited as measures that could enhance voter participation. The same can be adopted globally where applicable, especially in countries with consistently poor voter turnout.

All factors considered the scheduling of election days and dates plays a significant role in shaping and influencing voter turnout rates. From choosing weekends to aligning election dates with holidays, each factor either enhances or hinders civic engagement. Moving forward, a deeper understanding of these dynamics is increasingly crucial for policy-makers aiming to foster a more inclusive democratic process. Strategic planning creates a tangible and untapped opportunity to optimise and elevate voter turnout and strengthen the democratic fabric of our society. Ultimately, a proactive approach to the scheduling and carrying out of the election process is imperative to enhance democratic participation and reinforce the fundamental principles of representation and civic duty.