Opinion | You’re Not Just Voting for President. You’re Voting to Start Over.
As Americans go to the polls on Tuesday, the last day of voting in the 2020 election, the health of American democracy hangs in the balance. But in this hour of crisis, the strength of democracy also is on display. As Martin Luther King Jr. said in his final speech, “Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”
Even as Republican officials work frantically to discourage voting, and to prevent ballots from being counted, officials in many states have made it easier to vote than ever before. California, Nevada, New Jersey and Vermont, along with Washington, D.C., sent mail-in ballots to all voters, joining five other states that already did so. New York, New Hampshire and Virginia, among other states, eased the rules for voting by absentee ballot. In Harris County, Texas — a jurisdiction with a larger population than 26 states — some early voting sites stayed open all night.
Even as President Trump has celebrated acts of violence against people who do not support his re-election, Americans in the millions have taken advantage of these new opportunities to vote. More than 97 million people have already cast ballots nationwide. In Texas and Hawaii, the number of votes cast before Election Day has surpassed the total vote in the 2016 election.
Even as the coronavirus pandemic rages, millions more Americans plan to put on masks on Tuesday and vote in person. Some will wait for hours in long lines — a heroic response to a disgraceful reality — to exercise their right to pick the people who will serve them in Washington and in state and local government.
In the accumulation of these individual acts, our representative democracy is renewed.
State election officials have an obligation to ensure that all of these votes are counted. That process will not end on Tuesday. Some states may report results quickly; others expect it will take days to make the count.
Mr. Trump, and other Republican officials, can help by setting aside plans to interfere. One attempt at sabotage suffered a setback on Monday when a federal judge rejected an effort by Texas Republicans to toss more than 127,000 ballots from drive-through polling stations in Harris County, which includes Houston. Ben Ginsberg, a longtime lawyer for the Republican Party in voting cases, including in Florida in 2000, broke ranks in that case. “Not so long ago, it was a core tenet of the Republican Party that the vote of every qualified voter should be counted, even if, at times, it did not work in the party’s favor,” Mr. Ginsberg wrote. That should be a core tenet for both parties in the coming days.
The courts, which will inevitably be called upon by both parties, have a paramount duty to maximize the opportunity to vote and ensure that ballots are counted.
Candidates also have an obligation to wait for the votes to be counted. Mr. Trump has suggested he is ready to claim victory before states finish their counting. Such premature claims, sometimes excused as gamesmanship, would be particularly irresponsible in the present climate. Should a candidate make such a claim, however, it’s also worth noting that there’s no special magic in saying the words. Mr. Trump cannot obtain a second term by declaring himself the winner.
Once the results are in? Once the nation has picked a president, 35 senators and 435 representatives, not to mention state and local officials and the results of referendums? The election is just a beginning.
The winning candidate and his supporters will celebrate, but the importance of an election is easily overstated. What is won is not the right to carry out a particular set of campaign promises, but only the chance to govern.
Voters have made their own compromises in selecting candidates who embody some but not all of their priorities, some but not all of their values. Once those choices are made, the men and women they have selected must go to work and forge their own compromises.
This nation was struggling to address a range of long-term problems before Mr. Trump’s victory in 2016. Over the past four years, those challenges have only increased, in part because Mr. Trump has failed to understand the work of a president. He has sought to rule by fiat, to besiege his opponents and demand that they surrender. Time and again, he has decided that no loaf is better than half a loaf.
Now America gets its quadrennial chance to start over again.
The immediate challenge is to hold a free and fair election, to demonstrate to ourselves more than anyone else that this nation remains committed to representative democracy and to the rule of law. But the vote itself is just a means to an end. Once the ballots are counted, those who win must prove they can govern.