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First Election Day votes cast
01:31 - Source: CNN

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Story highlights

The Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant started with negative connotations

Some people are campaigning to move Election Day from Tuesday to a weekend day

If Romney and Obama tie, the U.S. could get a Republican president and a Democratic VP

The color assignments for Republicans and Democrats have flip-flopped over the years

CNN  — 

The finish line is almost here. Americans have weighed a plethora of questions in choosing their presidential candidate.

But amid the quadrennial explosion of political ads, bumper stickers and debates, some questions still baffle: Why is the Republican mascot an elephant? Why are Democrats linked to the color blue? And what happens if the candidates tie?

Below, a voter’s guide to such perpetually confounding riddles:

Q. Why are presidential elections always in November, and always on Tuesdays?

It all comes down to weather, harvests and worship.

Back when voters traveled to the polls by horse, Tuesday was an ideal day because it allows people to worship on Sunday, ride to their county seat on Monday and vote on Tuesday - all before market day, Wednesday.

And the month of November fit nicely between harvest time and brutal winter weather – which can be especially bad when you’re trudging along by horse and buggy.

Politics: Plenty of ballot initiatives

But since many voters now travel by horsepower instead of live horses, some people – like the group Why Tuesday? – are pushing to move election day to a weekend day to increase the country’s historically dismal voter turnout. According to the group, 15 states do not allow early voting, and 27% of non-voters said the main reason why they didn’t vote was because they were too busy or couldn’t get time off to vote.

Q. Why do Republicans have an elephant and Democrats have a donkey?

Back in 1874, cartoonist Thomas Nast used an elephant to depict the Republican vote in his drawing “The Third-Term Panic.” The cartoon was published in Harper’s Weekly after the owner of the New York Herald reportedly criticized the notion of Republican President Ulysses S. Grant running for a third term. (Grant didn’t end up running in the next election).

In the drawing, an “ass” – depicting the New York Herald – scares away other animals in a forest as the elephant – or the Republican vote – looks like it’s about to stumble into a pit.

But that cartoon isn’t where where the Democratic donkey came from. In 1828, Democrat Andrew Jackson’s critics called him a “jackass” because of his populist views and his slogan, “Let the people rule. Jackson decided to run with it – even using images of a donkey in his campaign ads. Later, Nast also used a donkey to depict the Democratic party.

Q. Why are Democratic states “blue,” and why are Republican states “red”?

There’s nothing magical about this color scheme. Essentially, the media made it up.

Find your ballot, polling place

Sure, there are logical reasons to use red and blue – both are colors in the American flag, and they look sharp on infographics because they’re pretty much on opposite ends of the color spectrum.

But the seemingly arbitrary color assignments have actually flip-flopped over the years. In 1980, states won by Republican Ronald Reagan were colored blue; Democrat Jimmy Carter’s states were colored red.

Even as late as 1996, major media outlets were divided on how to color-code the parties. But in 2000, when Americans were subjected to weeks of news about recounts, pregnant chads and electoral infographics, everyone seemed to get on the same page and shaded Republican-leaning states red and Democratic-leaning states blue.

Q. What happens if candidates tie in electoral votes?

It’s possible that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney snag the exact same number of electoral votes. In that case, the 12th Amendment says the House of Representatives gets to pick the president. And since analysts expect Republicans to maintain control of the House, Romney would likely win the presidency.

Pick your electoral map

In the same scenario, the Senate would get to choose the vice president. And because Democrats are expected to keep control of that chamber, senators could select incumbent Vice President Joe Biden to form a split administration.

Politics: Could close race produce a popular/electoral vote split?

Q. Why do presidents have to wait all the way until January 20 to assume office?

It used to be a lot longer. Until 1937, presidents didn’t get sworn in until March 4 because it took so long to count and report ballots, and because of the winner’s logistical issues in moving to the capital.

But then better technology kicked in, and the 20th Amendment moved presidential inaugurations to noon on January 20 – allowing presidents to start taking care of business sooner.