Tuesday, the General Election will be held. After months of tracking the various campaigns — senatorial, gubernatorial and otherwise — it has been a long slog to the finish line. Has anyone else ever wished for a system in which the candidates simply lay low until the first week of October, then engage in one debate and send voters a mailer outlining their positions?

In his novel "1984," George Orwell envisioned a society in which the government keeps the citizens permanently on edge by declaring war against neighboring countries. Sometimes, in modern-day America, I feel as though we live in a state of permanent campaigning. Think back to the buildup to the 2008 presidential election, in which the media spent at least two years debating the virtues of Barack Obama, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney and a dozen or more others.

That election dragged on so long that many people I know essentially avoided newspapers and television for the last six weeks before Election Day. Right now, pundits are speculating whether Obama will win a second term; by the time his first term began last January, I had gotten so accustomed to seeing his face on the news that I felt as though he had been president for four years already. And, of course, the dust had barely settled on his victory when Sarah Palin and the Tea Partyers began digging in their heels for this year's midterms.

But even at their most annoying and excessive, elections are still the most necessary of evils. The images of Iraqis risking their lives to go to the polls after Saddam Hussein's overthrow, flashing their purple-painted fingers to the camera, served as a reminder of that. And so does the sense of optimism that surrounds almost any campaign, whether for the White House, the governor's mansion or the Huntington Beach City Council.

Some people call Christmas the happiest day of the year. Maybe, but I would nominate Election Day as the most hopeful. A campaign may support Obama or Palin, health-care reform or tax cuts, but it invariably has two things in common: a firm belief in a brighter future, and a conviction that a dedicated group of people can succeed in muscling major political change.

I once spent a month in New Hampshire volunteering for a presidential primary campaign. I want to remain politically impartial as an editor, so I won't say whose it was, but suffice to say that I worked on the campaign 14 hours a day, seven days a week, and it was one of the most emotionally charged experiences I have ever had. Every day, we rose before dawn and set out to knock on doors, wave signs on street corners, call registered voters and do anything else imaginable to help our candidate win.

In the end, our candidate didn't. But during those days leading to the primary, we were so focused and exhilarated that anything seemed possible. If you ever want to see how poignant a grass-roots campaign looks in retrospect, visit the train depot in Plains, Ga., which Jimmy Carter used as his headquarters in 1976. We all know the story of his single term as president, the rampant inflation and the hostages in Iran. But look at the buttons, posters and other memorabilia on those depot walls, and the fervor is still there.

Right now, on a much smaller scale, Huntington Beach and Fountain Valley are preparing for their own elections. Huntington may see as many as four new council members, Fountain Valley three. Who will win on Tuesday is a mystery, and so are the four years ahead. It's amazing how quickly the exhilaration of campaigning can give way to political realities.

For the moment, though, America is bracing itself for another Tuesday that offers the promise of lasting change. And if anyone misses that spirit after Election Day, don't worry — the ads for the 2012 election should start airing some time early next week.

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at michael.miller@latimes.com.