Even the most ardent fans of Mitt Romney ought to take the latest of President Barack Obama's reelection ads to heart. Here's its point: 537. That's the number of votes (along with a favorable Supreme Court ruling) that decided who won Florida — and the presidency — in the contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000.
This year's election is shaping up to be just as close, with the latest polls suggesting the outcome could turn on a relatively few voters in states like Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Nevada, Colorado and even tiny New Hampshire. "The difference between what was and what could have been," the Democratic TV ad intones, turned on voters "thinking that your vote doesn't count, that it won't matter."
Much of the nation's attention will be turned today, tomorrow and perhaps for many more days to come on Hurricane Sandy and the damage done to the East Coast. Although the election is one week from today, it may be some time before much of the country can afford to focus on much more than protecting themselves, their families, their friends and neighbors, homes and businesses.
But while the damage from this historic storm may be substantial, and many of us may feel we lack the time or resources to wait in line at our local polling place, it is our solemn obligation to do so. The election is the moment when the future of this country is put in our collective hands: Voting is not just a right in a democracy but a duty.
Four years ago, the nation saw an historic turnout for the election that propelled President Obama into office. More than 130 million Americans cast a ballot; in Maryland, more than two-thirds of registered voters were among them. Yet most experts project far fewer will show up at their polling places next Tuesday — and that was before Hurricane Sandy entered the picture.
Add to that the latest voter ID laws that place barriers in the way of voting for some, particularly young people, minorities and the elderly, and the prospects for a significantly lower turnout are high. That makes votes all the more precious — and not just those cast for the top of the ticket.
While Maryland is not seen as a swing state — support for the incumbent president is almost assured — other choices on the ballot are likely to be closely contested. The latest poll conducted by The Sun shows that voters are evenly split over the law that would recognize same-sex marriages, and the Maryland Dream Act, the measure that would grant in-state tuition rates to certain qualified illegal immigrants, is also too close to call.
Meanwhile, at least one congressional race — the 6th District contest between incumbent Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett and Democrat John Delaney — is neck-and-neck as well. Any of these decisions could be made by 537 voters, or perhaps fewer. In 1986, Maryland's 4th District general contest between Thomas McMillen and Robert R. Neall was decided by 428 votes with the former University of Maryland basketball star coming out on top.
These are important choices to be made, and those who choose not to cast ballots on election day are not making some profound political statement through their apathy. Rather, they are allowing others to make choices for them. They are half-citizens, and their failure does no honor to those who fought and died in wars to protect that right.
Yet, there are also encouraging signs in the electorate. Use of absentee ballots is up, and so is attendance at polling sites in many of those states that permit early voting. In Ohio, more than 800,000 votes have already been cast through absentee ballots. Even in Maryland, lines at some early voting sites stretched for hours this weekend as citizens sought to cast their ballots before the storm arrived. The message of 537 appears to be getting through, at least in some states.
We live in a cynical time. We laugh at the foibles of politicians and their ham-handedness and hypocrisies and despair that Washington can ever change. But even if voting so often seems like an exercise in choosing lesser evils, it is an important choice nonetheless. As Franklin Roosevelt once observed, government is not an alien power, it is us. This nation's ultimate rulers are those who show up and cast ballots next Tuesday — or sooner if they choose.