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Does the government control what time it is?

Recently, I read that the west coast states are considering dropping Daylight Savings Time. Apparently, the process is first for the states to agree, and then they have ask for permission from the federal government. I believe it was also the federal government who made the decision to adjust the dates for DST a few years ago.

So that got me thinking, does the federal government have authority over what time it is? Could the federal government theoretically decide to just cancel 7:39 AM for one week and order everyone to go directly from 7:38 to 7:40? Would there be a legal issue if someone founded a cult that believes that it is just always 6:27 PM?

This also seems like it could be a problem for elections either way. If the federal government can decide what time it is, could it just decide that November will never come and there will never be an election? On the other hand, if the federal government can’t decide what time it is, could a state just declare “In our state, it is 2026, and Trump is no longer president”?

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    Some states already don't follow DST. Notably Arizona does not, except for the Navajo reservation, entirely inside AZ, which does follow DST, and then there's the Hopi reservation entirely inside the Navajo reservation which doesn't - On the main road that passes through these areas you might have to change your watch 6 times depending on the time of year. – Darrel Hoffman Jun 16 at 13:49
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    @DarrelHoffman - now, most folks would not call it a "main" road mind you. But it is a beautiful drive so you don't really care exactly what time it is wherever you happen to be along it. – Jon Custer Jun 16 at 14:19
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    @DarrelHoffman Wait, what?? A time zone enclave? Nice. – Volker Siegel Jun 16 at 21:17
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    @VolkerSiegel A double-enclave in fact, since it's an enclave within an enclave. Should make a correction though, as the Navajo Nation extends into 2 other states. I'm not sure what the time zone does in the Utah and New Mexico portions... – Darrel Hoffman Jun 17 at 13:12
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    I may be wrong but I would think that a President's term lasts the allotted period of time from the moment s/he's sworn in. How you call the moment in time when that period has run out is irrelevant, and the President is not any longer President on Hawaii than on the East Coast, and Oceania will not send their good-byes 14 hours later than the Brits, so time zones are irrelevant. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Jun 17 at 14:15
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15 USC Subchapter IX gives the Secretary of Transportation powers to set rules about the 11 time zones, and those laws supersede state and local laws. Observance of Daylight Savings Time is optional for a state. This is the DST law. First, it says that at the DST changeover times,

the standard time of each zone established by sections 261 to 264 of this title...shall be advanced one hour...however, (1) any State that lies entirely within one time zone may by law exempt itself from the provisions of this subsection providing for the advancement of time, but only if that law provides that the entire State (including all political subdivisions thereof) shall observe the standard time otherwise applicable during that period, and (2) any State with parts thereof in more than one time zone may by law exempt either the entire State as provided in (1) or may exempt the entire area of the State lying within any time zone.

which allows a state to stay on permanent standard time (but not permanent DST). The appearance that government has to approve the change comes from the fact that states (other than Arizona, Hawaii, Guam etc) seem to want to switch to permanent DST, not standard time.

The standardization of time is governed by laws passed by congress, so the government can change it, if they can pass a bill through both houses and get the president to sign.

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  • The govt can also change it by rulemaking, not just statutes. See my answer re: 47 CFR 71. States and local governments can elect to change their time zone - which is done via rulemaking. – Andrew Jun 16 at 1:11
  • The rule-making has to be "as authorized by Congress", i.e. setting the details of what Congress said, not just any arbitrary rule. – user6726 Jun 16 at 1:15
  • All rulemaking is "as authorized by Congress" - or it couldn't be done. The selection of time zone for a state or local govt is through rulemaking, not via statute. Also, the "standardization" is still at the discretion of the Sec of Comm. See 15 USC 261 "and interpreted or modified for the United States by the Secretary of Commerce". Thus, the interpretation by the Sec of Comm sets the standard; however, such interpretation is via rulemaking, not via statute. (and of course a statute can overrule a rule, I am not arguing otherwise). – Andrew Jun 16 at 1:21
  • The primary root for this was that to transport business - foremost rail roads HAD the problem of different times at their stations. I remember an example from a Chicago starting railroad going to St Louis if I remember correctly passing 11 different time settings at the stations along its path - making it very difficult to arrive on time - and avoid accidents - so they were the drivers behind introducing regulated time zones with identical time - but no reason to skip a minute just because some government wants that. – eagle275 Jun 18 at 9:11
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tl/dr: All states have to use US Standard Time.

The US Gov't power of standards

The US Gov't's power to keep time falls under Article 1 Section 8 Clause 5 of the US Constitution:

To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;

Currently, the US Department of Commerce National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is the regulatory authority for Weights and measures. However, traditionally, the US Gov't has taken a very hands-off approach to weights and measures and allowed industries to standardize themselves. (see, e.g., IEEE SA, ASHRAE, etc.).

However, every state also have its own weights and measures programs. This is somewhat because of the hands-off attitude.

International Time Standards in the USA

Now, for time. The two main time standards are International Atomic Time (TAI) set by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures and the UTC (Coordinated Universal Time), another international standard computed based on observations of distant quasars. UTC is now standardized against TAI with leap seconds. The UTC (at the time Greenwich Mean Time or GMT) was adopted by the US in the Standard Time Act of 1918 (now in 15 USC s 261).

In the Standard Time Act, the time-zones of the US were established as were the standards used:

In this section, the term “Coordinated Universal Time” means the time scale maintained through the General Conference of Weights and Measures and interpreted or modified for the United States by the Secretary of Commerce in coordination with the Secretary of the Navy.

State Authority and Time

So, from that the US adopted the SI unit of a "second". So the US Sec. of Commerce can modify the standard (through a rule-making procedure), but time is, by statute, maintained through the General Conference of Weights and Measures.

According the the USDoT:

The time zones established by the Standard Time Act, as amended by the Uniform Time Act, are Atlantic, eastern, central, mountain, Pacific, Hawaii–Aleutian, Samoa, and Chamorro.

Accordingly, states may request to change a Time zone (discussed below). But there is not process for setting a particular time, that is, all states have to use US standard time (15 USC s 262).

it shall be understood and intended that the time shall insofar as practicable (as determined by the Secretary of Transportation) be the United States standard time of the zone within which the act is to be performed)

The legal description of the time zones can be found in 49 CFRR 71.

The request has to come from the highest political authority in the area subject to the request. Meaning a governor or legislature, or, from local government, from a position similar to the Board of County Commissioners.

The political authority has to provide:

  1. Certification that the request is a result of official action.
  2. Contact info of the person requesting.
  3. Supporting Info - supporting contention that the requested change would serve the convenience of Commerce.

Requirements:

The principal standard for deciding whether to change a time zone is the convenience of commerce, which is defined very broadly to include consideration of all of the impacts upon a community that would result in a change in its standard of time. Examples of some of these considerations that should be addressed in the supporting information are the following:

  • Where do businesses in the community get their supplies and to where do they ship their goods or products?
  • Where does the community receive television and radio broadcasts from?
  • Where are the newspapers published that serve the community?
  • Where does the community get its bus and passenger rail services; if there is no scheduled bus or passenger rail service in the community, where must residents go to obtain these services? Where is the nearest airport; if it is a local service airport, to what major airport does it carry passengers?
  • What percentage of residents of the community work outside of the community; where do these residents work?
  • What are the major elements of the community’s economy; is the community’s economy improving or declining; what Federal, State, or local plans, if any, are there for economic development in the community?
  • If residents leave the community for schooling, recreation, health care, or religious worship, what standard of time is observed in the places where they go for these purposes?
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This is addressing the last paragraph: could the federal government decide on "eternal October" to avoid a presidential election?

The date of the election itself is set by statute. However the Constitution specifies that the President shall hold office for a term of "4 years".

Suppose the executive (in this case the Secretary of State for Commerce) decides to do an end-run around this by declaring that October will continue forever, with dates numbered accordingly. If this is intended to have general legal effect then it would have huge side effects; imagine if no November mortgage payment ever came due, or that legal birthdays ceased to occur so nobody could ever come of age. Its hard to see how such a rule could ever be made to stick in the real world.

Back in the legal world, such rulemaking would be subject to judicial review. The executive does not have untrammelled power; its rule-making must be done pursuant to legitimate goals. Preventing an election is not a legitimate goal, and given the huge negative side effects there is no question that such a rule would be be thrown out by any court that looked at it. A court might also read an implied term into the intent of both the law and the constitution that the dates and years were to be reckoned according to the Gregorian calendar, so that the executives rules would have no effect on the number of days until an election occurred or the Presidential term ended. Either would be enough to knock such a cockamamie scheme on the head.

As a point of interest, the Gregorian calendar was the first ever international standard. It was defined in the Papal Bull "Inter gravissimas" ("Among the most serious") of February 24th 1582, and this remains the official definition (so if you need to prove compliance, first learn Latin). However it only has legal effect within the Catholic church; its adoption in any particular country is a matter for national legislation.

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  • Eternal October is not the only way that the executive branch could try to interfere with an election. An hour before California, Oregon, and Washington are supposed to start voting, the executive could change the time zones of those states to the other side of the International Date Line, eliminating their election day. There's no way such a change would pass judicial review, but that wouldn't stop them from trying, or at the very least causing confusion. – DrSheldon Jun 16 at 12:45
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    States get to make their own rules regarding elections, however, so half an hour after the proclamation, the secretaries of state of those states could simply announce "due to an emergency of unprecedented assholism, polling places will open as previously scheduled in half an hour, and remain open for at least 12 hours, regardless of what dates and times the federal government decides to label that, and we'll see you in court." – Russell Borogove Jun 16 at 15:10
  • Inter gravissimas didn't start out as an international standard - and even less the "first ever" one. It directly applied only in Stato della Chiesa, a small part of today's Italy. But other countries found it convenient to converge to it in a process taking centuries which still goes on. (Even within a single country, the adoption is often gradual because it is possible to use several calendars for different purposes in parallel.) – Jirka Hanika Jun 18 at 15:39
  • @JirkaHanika I would argue that it was an international standard: it directly appealed to national rulers to adopt the new calendar, and they gradually did so. This is essentially the same process used by ISO today. As for the first, do you have any earlier examples of formal written standards (as opposed to informal conventions) intended to be applied internationally? – Paul Johnson Jun 18 at 15:47
  • @PaulJohnson - Gregory XIII asked whoever would listen to return to an earlier calendar - the one internationally used by the early church. That's how the proposal was framed. I'd compare that to initiating a restoration movement than to a standardization effort, full of compromises, taken up by an intergovernmental organization, even if the end effect may be the same or similar. – Jirka Hanika Jun 18 at 20:50
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Yes, the government determines what time it is. Examples of it happening in the past:

The effect on elections is a different issue, and is governed by a different set of laws - in particular the ones that say "a new election must be held no later than ___ after the previous one. If the government were to declare that we are skipping November for December, a legal challenge stating that a new election must be declared (because X time has passed) will surely be mounted, and it's hard to see that it won't succeed.

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An interesting fact about how silly it is. Denmark does not follow UTC+1 by law, but instead have some old law about how the sun is placed.

This means two things.

  1. Denmark cannot participate in any international groups coordinating UTC.
  2. Everybody ignores it and just pretend it is UTC+1

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_in_the_Danish_Realm

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  • @Andrew's answer implies that the US has used UTC since 1918. That is not only not the case, it is impossible as UTC did not exist until 1972. The 1918 version of 15 USC § 261 based US time zones on where the Sun was (on average) -- and the law remained this way for a long, long time. Even though the US National Institute of Standards and the US Naval Observatory were two of the lead agencies that worked toward developing the concept of UTC and leap seconds, the US Congress did not recognize this in law until 2007. So Denmark isn't that far behind the times. – David Hammen Jun 17 at 22:37
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    Regarding Denmark cannot participate in any international groups coordinating UTC, that is incorrect. If what you wrote was correct, the US would not have been able to participate until 2007, and similarly for many other nations. Legislative bodies are predominantly made up of lawyers, and as everyone who knows even a handful of dead lawyer jokes, lawyers are not particularly adept, technically. – David Hammen Jun 17 at 22:50
  • Denmark has multiple observing sites that officially report to the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (IERS), and Ole Baltazar Andersen has been a longtime key contributor to the IERS. The IERS is the organization that decides when leap seconds need to be inserted. – David Hammen Jun 17 at 22:51
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Atomic physicist here. Not here to discuss whether the Federal government has the legal authority to set time, but wanted to say how they actually do it.

Several governments maintain their own master clock facilities which serve as the national standard time. Essentially every clock in the country (including your phones/computers using NTP) is referenced to a master time source. The U.S. Naval Observatory maintains one of these clocks underneath the Vice President's House (thats only a slight embellishment).

Almost exclusively, these are either cesium or rubidium fountain clocks - two old but good atomic clocks that date from the 80's. But those clocks are over a million times less accurate than the best clock ever made - the Al-Mg "quantum logic" clock built by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Running continuously, it would take the quantum logic clock 33 billion years to slip by a single second.

So yes, the government controls what time it is. And they have invested millions of dollars to do just that.

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The original time zones were set by the Dept of Commerce to standardize railroad time tables. A serious need for safety on trains. It has since evolved to the government maintaining 2 atomic clocks. That NTP (network time protocol) services are synchronized to, keeping all of our nation/world on a common time. Then we all get our own GMT... mine is -5

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