Why are elections on a Thursday?

You may not have noticed but elections always happen on the same day of the week. Whether it’s a general election, EU election or local elections like today, in the UK we always head to the polls on a Thursday.

Having Thursday as our chosen day makes little sense on the face of it. Why not have an election on weekend? Schools would not need to be shut and people would not have to take time out of their busy work day to vote.

Like so much in our British constitution, the reasons behind the tradition are obscure and frustratingly nobody bothered to write it down, so what we are left with is a prevailing theory.

Elections over the years

Before 1918, elections in the UK took place over several days. However, people disagreed with this because they thought that results trickling in over a few days created a bandwagon effect.

Therefore, in 1918 it was decided that elections should be restricted to just one day. Throughout the 1920s and 30s this day was mainly Wednesday or Thursday, but since 1935 Thursday has always been the chosen day.

But why Thursday?

Far from being just a random day, it is suggested that Thursday was a deliberate choice. In the early 20th century, workers would be paid weekly on Friday and officials feared that if elections were held on Friday or Saturday, people might celebrate the end of the week with a few drinks and end up voting in an inebriated state.

But why not Sunday then? Most European countries hold their elections on Sunday.

Politicians in the UK, especially non-conformists on the left (such as methodists, baptists and quakers), feared that the power of the Anglican clergy would be used against them, and voters would march from the pew to the ballot box fresh from an overtly political sermon.

Therefore, Thursday became the day as it was the furthest away from Sunday and the power of the pulpit, but it was not Friday or Saturday when voters might be drunk.

In 2019 this seems absurd when church attendance is now very low and workers are much less likely to be paid weekly. But like so much in our political system, inertia is a powerful force and it is now enshrined in law that elections have to be held on a Thursday.