Why this presidential election year could bring a ‘November surprise’

For only the fourth time in a century, a presidential Election Day falls on the second Tuesday in November — Nov. 8, which is the latest date envisioned by Congress.

That extra week opens the door to what political junkies call a “November surprise.” It’s one more week in which a big news event (planned or unanticipated) threatens to upend an election.

In 2006, for example, former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to death two days before the midterm election.  That verdict was cast by some in the media as a November surprise but how much of a role that played in the election outcome is not easily deciphered. Democrats won enough seats to take control of both houses of Congress.

Lilliana Mason, assistant professor in the department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, told The Colorado Independent that this election season, already volatile, could easily see a November surprise.

But, she said, Colorado may be somewhat immune to the effects given that the state has an all-mail ballot election. Colorado is only one of three states that hold all-mail ballot elections, along with Washington and Oregon. Ballots in Colorado go out on Monday, Oct. 17.

A November surprise is likely to have more impact in the states and U.S. territories where people will wait until closer to Election Day or the day of to vote, Mason said. That said, Coloradans can decide not to vote by mail and wait until Election Day to cast ballots in person at voting service centers in each county, according to the Secretary of State’s office.

The practical effect of a later election, Mason says, is exactly what you’d expect: It buys campaigns more time to get out the vote. But, she says, that’s a benefit only if that effort has been ongoing.

“[Getting out the vote]  takes time, effort and recruitment, and if you decide on Nov. 1 you’re not doing as well in Colorado, that extra week is not enough time to create the ground game to get the votes you’re missing,” Mason told The Independent.

Election Day is often referred to as the first Tuesday in November, but it’s actually the Tuesday following the first Monday in November. That means Election Day can fall anywhere between Nov. 2 and Nov. 8. The 2016 presidential election will be the latest on the calendar since 1988 and is only the seventh time in our nation’s history that a presidential Election Day has fallen on Nov. 8.

According to the Federal Election Commission, several factors went into Congress’ 1845 selection of Election Day. Among them: Nov. 1 is All Saints’ Day, a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics. Lawmakers also wanted a Tuesday instead of Monday for farmers and other rural Americans. Monday voting meant rural America might have to start traveling to polling places on Sunday, which would interfere with church services.

And there’s a business reason for avoiding a Nov. 1 election: Business owners did their books on the first day of the month, and Congress worried “that the economic success or failure of the previous month might prove an undue influence on the vote.”

Photo: courtesy of League of Women Voters, Flickr via Creative Commons license

has been a political journalist since 1998. She covered the state capitol for the Silver & Gold Record from 1998 to 2009 and for The Colorado Statesman in 2010-11 and 2013-14. Since 2010 she also has covered the General Assembly for newspapers in northeastern Colorado. She was recognized with awards from the Colorado Press Association for feature writing and informational graphics for her work with the Statesman in 2012.