There’s always a sense of relief when a hardfought election is behind us, especially in a year when we cast ballots for president, because the stakes are so high. That’s especially true this campaign season.

We find ourselves sharply divided as a nation, but we have this to be thankful for: Our democracy, which seems creaky and rusting at times, still works.

Voters turned out in record numbers in many places. In North Dakota, 363,006 votes have been tallied so far. That’s a new record, and the number will increase as more ballots postmarked by Nov. 2 arrive at courthouses around the state.

Although a new record, one that reflects the state’s growing population, the 62.4% of eligible voters who cast ballots didn’t equal that of some previous presidential years. In 1984, for example, when Ronald Regan won his second term, 69% of eligible voters went to the polls.

Still, this year’s strong turnout is a solid indicator that our democracy is working — an impressive achievement, since voting took place in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the worst public health crisis in a century.

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In fact, three of every four votes cast in North Dakota were early votes, either mailed-in ballots or votes cast in early voting centers.

Voter turnout was even more impressive in Minnesota, where at least 78% of eligible voters cast ballots, a level that could climb to 80% once the tallying is finished. Minnesota lawmakers passed a new law giving two extra days to count ballots, a grace period that withstood a Republican legal challenge.

In South Dakota, 73.8% of eligible voters turned out, slightly exceeding the 73.2% turnout in 1980, when Reagan outpolled President Jimmy Carter to win his first term.

Voter turnout is one of the vital signs for a democracy. The process works best when as many votes as possible are cast, giving the fullest expression of the voice of the public.

Historians tell us our nation is more divided than it has been since the 1850s, the volatile period before the Civil War. Even families are divided in their views about where our elected leaders should steer our country.

The whole point of the ongoing democratic project is to settle our differences and chart a course peacefully, at the ballot box.

The strong civic engagement shown on Tuesday’s election — when many voters went to their polling places at some risk to their health — is a very real sign that the heartbeat of the country, though beating a bit fast, remains strong.

It’s a sign that the process works. It means we have reason to hope that — ultimately — we'll find a way through this difficult period, as we’ve done repeatedly through our history.