Nelson Mandela

South Africans wait to vote in the 1994 election that made Nelson Mandela the country's president.

Election Day Tuesday will mark the end of, arguably, the most important presidential election in more than 150 years, pitting a career politician, Democrat Joe Biden, against incumbent Republican President Donald Trump, whose first stab at politics was his stunning 2016 election victory.

The campaign has turned into a slugfest of conflicting ideas, discordant messages, and contrasting demeanors. Far-right groups, such as Proud Boys, and polarizing white nationalists have been central to the campaign debate.

In recent months, Americans have become anxious, afraid, angry, and even unhinged. Their angst over the future — their own and the country’s — is driving them to vote in record numbers. Despite daunting obstacles, including a surging pandemic, postal delays, and a relentless assault on the election’s integrity, an unprecedented early turnout has recorded 90 million votes, with 150 million Americans expected to cast ballots in this election.

On Tuesday, make sure you’re one of them, if you aren’t already. Non-voters relinquish their power to choose candidates who best represent their interests, values, and beliefs. Leaving it to others to stand for you is never a good strategy.

No doubt, money, power, connections, education, and other influences in America are grossly unequal. But the power of the nation’s poorest voter equals that of the wealthiest and most privileged. The principle of one person/one vote represents equality under the law, a central tenet of democracy.

If you haven’t voted yet and are still pondering, consider the photo above: A twisting, seemingly endless line of hundreds of people in April of 1994. They’re waiting to vote in South African’s first free election; it made Nelson Mandela president.

Some of these first-time voters waited seven or eight hours; some walked miles to get to the polling place. Despite the hardships, they endured, celebrating self-determination and a government that derives its “just powers from the consent of the governed,” as Thomas Jefferson wrote nearly 250 years ago in the Declaration of Independence.

Historically, U.S. voters have recorded dismal turnouts, sometimes in the single-digits for low-profile local races. Even this year’s expected turnout of 60 percent in the presidential election is nothing to cheer about. If the people don’t hold their government accountable — and voting is one way to do it — they will serve their government as subjects, instead of their government serving them. Freedom, former President Ronald Reagan said, is only one generation from extinction.

To find a presidential election of greater import, historians would have to reach back at least to the 1932 Depression-era victory of Democratic New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt over incumbent President Herbert Hoover; and, more probably, to the pre-Civil War election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

Roosevelt’s election led to an enormous expansion of government to fix problems created by the Great Depression and other social, economic, and natural disasters. Lincoln’s election led to the U.S. Civil War, the Union’s preservation, and the end of slavery.

This one will determine, largely, how the nation handles, or mishandles, its changing role in an increasingly unstable world, the potentially catastrophic warming of the planet, and a pandemic that’s already killed more than 200,000 Americans and thrown millions of people out of work. The coronavirus has hit especially hard African Americans and poor people, who typically cannot work remotely. The death of George Floyd at the boot of a Minneapolis police officer has triggered nationwide protests and given the country a powerful and controversial social movement: Black Lives Matter.

Voting is often not easy in an imperfect world. But that’s no excuse to take a powder on a fundamental right, and responsibility, of American citizens. If you don’t like either candidate, then vote for the one you dislike the least. If you really can’t make yourself vote for either of the two major-party candidates, then vote for a third-party candidate. Your candidate won’t win, but you can at least register your displeasure with the system.

However you vote, do it, as one voter told a reporter, as though your life depended on it.

This year, it’s more than a notion.

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