I’ve filled in a lot of ovals in my lifeon the SAT, final exams, sundry surveysbut none as important as the one I darkened on Sunday.

I stared at the name “Barack Obama” on the ballot, nearly in disbelief. I put my pen to paper and filled in the oval next to his and Joe Biden’s names completely, solidly, so that there would be no mistake. The tabulation machine would not miss the strength of my conviction.

Barring any devastating replays of the 2000 election, in one week we will have elected the 44th president of the United States. If Obama loses, no flee-to-Canada jokes will mollify my, or much of the country’s, emotional devastation. The outrage and dismay over the 2000 and 2004 elections will seem quaint in comparison.

If Obama wins, yes, it will be an enormous national achievement for us to have elected a black president, especially considering less than 40 years ago there were segregated swimming pools. And as recently as 1990, Jesse Helms’ racist “White Hands” political ad targeted his African-American opponent in the U.S. Senate race, Harvey Gantt. (In the short memory department, the mastermind of the ad, Alex Castellanos, is a regular political commentator on CNN and an outside adviser to John McCain’s advertising team.)

The gravity of this election weighed on me as I left the voting booth teary-eyed and exuberant. (Afterward, in the privacy of our car, my husband and I chanted “Obama, Obama, Obama!”) I’ve voted for many Democratic presidential candidates but never have I felt like the future of the United States, and possibly, the world, depended on my ballotand millions of others.

In preparation for Nov. 4, our election coverage continues this week: In the cover story, Hal Crowther views this election through the lens of the fall of John Edwards. Assuming an Obama victory, Edwards could have played a role in his administration. Edwards could have served at the pleasure of the president, but instead he indulged in his own and was cast aside by the Democratic Party in a monumental year.

Bob Geary and Fiona Morgan cover the early voting phenomenon. More than 1 million people have cast their ballots statewide, including thousands of first-time voters. Yesterday, at the Durham Board of Elections, I heard election staff warmly applaud a first-time voter after she slid her ballot in the machine.

Voters, fill in your ovals. Press hard.

Note: Next week, the Indy will publish a day later than usual, on Thursday, Nov. 6, so our reporters, who will be dispatched throughout the Triangle on election night, can write about their observations and experiences. We’ll resume our regular publication schedule Wednesday, Nov. 12.