They had no intention of missing this one. Many rose before dawn. They lined up an hour or more before poll workers pushed the doors open. No wait seemed too onerous. No rainstorm too fierce. And once they had cast their ballots, a few wept.
This was not just a vote -- it was the vote of a lifetime for many, particularly African Americans, who said Tuesday that they could feel the weight of history lifting and something new replacing it. Some called it hope, others pride.
The chance to vote for a young black man, Barack Obama, and then to see him elected the 44th president of the United States has changed their world forever, voters from coast to coast said.
The magnitude of the moment could be seen in the 1,000 voters in line to vote in one Chesapeake Bay-area polling place, accounting for half of the precinct's registered voters. It could be measured in massive turnout, estimated in California alone to reach nearly 14 million voters, 1 million more than in 2004.
Passions spiraled not only for the historic racial barrier that Obama, 47, would surmount, but for the desperate condition of America's economy and for another powerful biography -- of Arizona Sen. John McCain, 72, who asked voters for one more chance to serve, more than three decades after he was freed from a North Vietnamese prison camp.
"It was one of the happiest times of my life," Donald Jordan Sr., 76, of Las Vegas said after voting, as he helped drive other Obama voters to the polls. "My grandmother was a slave and" -- his voice caught, and he paused a moment -- "my mom taught me early on how important it was to vote."
"I never thought this would happen," Jordan said. "I voted for Jesse [Jackson], but Obama really showed up. He's got to win. He's going to win."
Obama's breakthrough came 232 years after the Declaration of Independence, 143 years after President Lincoln freed blacks brought from Africa in slavery, 54 years after the Supreme Court banned racial segregation in public schools and 45 years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached about his dream of equality.
Gertrude Baines, 114, lived much of that history. So it might be no surprise that a small laugh escaped as she filled in the bubble next to Obama's name on her absentee ballot.
"I'm glad, I'm glad, I'm glad to get a colored man in there, and so many people are," Baines said at her convalescent facility near USC.
For Baines, who grew up in segregated Georgia, it was only the second vote of her life. The first was for John F. Kennedy. "I didn't never think I'd live this long."
Shortly after 8 p.m. her nurse switched on the television, and Baines witnessed Obama's victory. Baines smiled and said, "I told you so," then went to sleep.
Iris Hill, arrived at her polling station in the San Fernando Valley at 5 a.m. The 27-year-old African American talked about her grandmother, once not allowed to vote, and the inspiration Obama would provide for young people.
"It is excellent to have a role model for African American children," Hill said, "someone to look up to who is more than a sports figure or a rapper."
And although many were deeply inspired by Obama, nearly half the nation voted for McCain or another candidate.
"He went through it in the worst way possible," said Suzanne Ashley of Firestone, Colo., explaining her vote for the senator from Arizona. "He's gone through such adversity and risen above it."
In northern Virginia, Navy veteran John Mallon called it "a privilege" to vote for McCain, whom he saluted for "dedication to country."
Others said they still needed convincing that Obama would be their president too.
"I'm glad it's over," said Victoria Carmichael, 62, a homemaker and evangelical Christian who lives north of Columbus, Ohio. "But it's scary. There are so many things we don't know about Obama, and the things we do know about him are rather shady. I've prayed a lot about it."
But McCain suffered, partly because even many voters who have doubts about Obama weren't ready to vote for another Republican after eight years of President Bush.
Josh Montoya, an Air Force veteran from Firestone, Colo., who did two tours of duty in Iraq, hesitated for five minutes before finally marking his ballot for Obama.
Montoya liked McCain's determination to stay the course in the war but pointed to Obama's youth and charisma.
"I'm hoping he doesn't turn out to be Obama the Appeaser," said Montoya, 24.
Voters overwhelmingly cited the economy as their driving issue, and the majority of them tilted to Obama.
Many other "persuadable" voters said they had been turned off by McCain's vice-presidential choice, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whom they described as inexperienced and out of her depth when she talked about national and international issues.
Others, such as Zel Mira of Arlington, Va., said they grew tired of the Republican's attacks on Obama's associations with 1960s radical William Ayers and others.
"Both candidates promised not to go to negative campaigning, and they both did. But the ones on the Republican side were worse," Mira said. "The same old-style politics."
Terry Cornett, a black firefighter in Columbus, prepared for "a little jumping up and down" as Obama closed in on victory. But he was reminded of the sobering landscape facing the next president, "the worst it's been since the Depression."
"Then it's time to get to work," Cornett said. "The party will be short-lived."
Times staff writers Robin Abcarian in Ohio, Faye Fiore in Virginia, Ashley Powers in Nevada, Nicholas Riccardi and Deedee Correll in Colorado, and Teresa Watanabe in Los Angeles contributed to this report.