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Did you vote? Now, be patient

Did you vote? Now, be patient
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Voters are making history right now through the act of being counted in a year that could see record-shattering turnout for a presidential contest. There is no shortage of public interest and activism despite a raging pandemic.

But there is something we need to get through this election cycle, and it could be in short supply: patience. 

Consider this: More than 257 million people in the U.S. are 18 years old or older, and nearly 240 million citizens are eligible to vote this year, according to the U.S. Elections Project at the University of Florida. Eligible voters include people living overseas but not non-citizens or people convicted of a felony, depending on state law.

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It's possible that 85 million people could vote before Nov. 3, with 150 million voting in total. That would mean an eligible voter turnout rate of more than 62 percent — a high water mark in this century. (2008 saw the highest rate of eligible voter turnout in a presidential election in the last 50 years: 61.65 percent. It would be nice to break that record.)

The world is watching us, and as a country we need to show our best selves, both in terms of turnout and behavior.

According to Pew Research data from 2018, if you compare America to other countries using an international standard of voting, we placed 26th out of 32 for turnout rates among the voting-age population among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). (The highest turnout rates in that category were Belgium, Sweden and Denmark — all over 80 percent.)

COVID-19 has been a game changer this year for all countries, moving many of us to use mail-in and absentee options.

This is an election like no other and could engender a long, slow, laborious process of counting votes at a time when division and impatience permeate our politics.

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The question is: Can we as a society respond in measured ways that promote a peaceful and lawful outcome? The answer is: we must.

Firstly, voting is a cherished right and for far too long it was denied to women and people of color. Major legislative progress was made in America with the passage of the 13th, 14th, 15th Amendments, the Voting Rights Act, the women’s suffrage movement and even the change in the voting age. We have made real progress in opening up the voting system, with checks and balances, funding for upgraded security and options to vote safely from home during a pandemic.

Yes, we have widespread fear about voter access, voter intimidation, violence, foreign influences, unfaithful electors, doubts about fairness and general lack of trust in media to report and government to protect. That is a toxic mix of negativity.

But we also have good Americans volunteering to monitor polling places and knowledgeable experts on how to count votes. We have lawyers standing by to remind people how the system works and how state rules operate. We have younger Americans driving older Americans to the polls. We have good police officers committed to keeping the peace. Despite any bad intentions by those within America or outside, our electoral system is up to the challenge of counting every vote.

What we need are patient Americans who can endure not just waiting in lines to vote but waiting for an outcome and accepting it. To help that effort, there are many powerful groups working hard to help us get through this period.

It’s why a bipartisan group of more than 40 former elected officials, former Cabinet secretaries, retired military officials and civic leaders have come together to form the National Council on Election Integrity. They will be running a new $20 million public education campaign highlighting the country’s ability to hold safe and secure elections and stressing that every vote counts. The effort begins with a $4 million TV and digital ad buy to run commercials, including in the battleground states, reminding people to patient, peaceful and protective of the process. It’s our democracy to protect.

We also have groups like The Better Angels Society, which is working to create public discourse and civility so that communities can participate in democracy, fragile as it is. They remind us that we can have discussions around difficult issues, reach out across divides and find common ground.

We have nonpartisan groups such as FairVote working on electoral reforms at the local, state and national level that give voters greater choice, a stronger voice and a representative democracy that works for all Americans. 

And there are countless other bipartisan, nonpartisan efforts to keep us on track.

So, let us not despair or create a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom. Let’s be confident about our country and its citizens who can rise to the occasion and demonstrate our best selves. In the end, what kind of America we have is about what kind of Americans we have.

Tara D. Sonenshine is former U.S. under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs and is a fellow at The George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs.