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Originally published Tuesday, October 31, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Officials face Election Day stumper, with possible payoff online

Why do Americans vote on Tuesdays? A voter-reform group is paying prospective voters to videotape themselves asking elected officials that...

Los Angeles Times

CHICAGO — Why do Americans vote on Tuesdays?

A voter-reform group is paying prospective voters to videotape themselves asking elected officials that question. The first person to post footage of a particular official on YouTube or another video-sharing Internet site cashes in.

The contest is sponsored by the bipartisan advocacy group Why Tuesday? The group, chaired by former U.N. ambassador and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, thinks voter turnout would improve if Election Day were on the weekend instead of the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

The bounty hunting is lucrative: For a current House member, the payoff is $300, while a sitting U.S. senator or governor is worth $500. A vice president, either sitting or not, nets $2,500; President Bush or a predecessor commands $5,000.

The result so far has been an amusing cross between civics lesson and campaign-trail "gotcha."

"You know, I don't know," confessed Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., when confronted with the question last week by Jacob Soboroff, a recent New York University graduate, at a retirement center in Milwaukee.

The founder of Why Tuesday? New York attorney William Wachtel, said the idea came about when he and other group members saw voters flocking to YouTube to study the latest political ads and off-the-cuff campaign quips.

What better way to get the candidates talking about an issue, Wachtel said, than to get voters asking about it themselves? And what better lure than cash to entice the public?

Wachtel figures to cough up $300,000 if every qualified politician is taped by Jan. 31, when the contest ends. "We're just trying to have some fun and get people talking about voter reform," he said.

Curtis Gans, director of the Washington-based Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, said the contest "seems like a well-meaning but misguided crusade." Besides, he says, experiments with weekend elections have shown that turnout suffers.

The contest began Oct. 23. So far, the only postings are by Soboroff and a former college roommate, who say they have earned $2,300 for interviews with four senators and a House member.

"A friend of ours had heard about it on the Web, and we thought it'd be an interesting way to pay for a road trip and be part of the election," said Soboroff, 23, of Los Angeles, whose traveling partner is Barnett Zitron, 24, of New York.

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Armed with a laptop, a wireless card, a digital video camera and a car full of snacks, the two search the Web for upcoming public appearances of political candidates. Then, they crash the events with their one question.

Tracked down at a biodiesel gas station in Indiana, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., said he liked the idea of making Election Day a national holiday but was unclear about the Tuesday tradition. "I don't know," Lugar said.

It turns out, Soboroff tells Lugar on the video, the practice dates to 1845, when Congress tried to select a convenient time for voters living in the mostly rural society.

By November, harvest was usually over but harsh weather hadn't set in. Saturdays were a work day for farmers, and Sunday was for church. And Wednesday was market day in most towns. Considering it might take a full day to travel by horse to a polling station, Tuesday in early November became the choice.

"Thank you for the piece of education," Lugar said.

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