If love comes with time, then Susie Lewis has surely earned it from Cook County’s election authorities. As the county’s oldest voter, Lewis, 111, has been voting for more than nine decades.
To honor Lewis’ long voting history, Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough made Lewis her “valentine” Tuesday by bringing her a heart-shaped box of chocolates, a large card, red and pink flowers and a balloon to the woman’s Maywood home. And after early voting expanded to sites in each of Chicago’s 50 wards, Lewis had advice for voters across the county.
“Try to put the best person in there,” she said.
The civically engaged centenarian said she prefers to mail in her ballot, as it has become difficult to vote in person. She urged every voter in Cook County to cast a ballot in upcoming elections.
“They should vote if they’re able to vote,” she said. “I think everybody should vote.”
Yarbrough noted that some people don’t think voting is important.
“If she’s still here having her voice heard, what does that say?” Yarbrough asked. “It makes a difference, it really does. When people aren’t engaged, things can go awry … If she votes, everybody should vote.”
Access to voting has changed tremendously since Lewis cast her first ballot as an 18-year-old, Yarbrough noted. Indeed, during Lewis’ life, American women finally got a constitutional right to vote and the Voting Rights Act helped end many of the once-legal efforts used to prevent Black people from casting ballots.
But the fight to push for the right to vote continues as some places across the country experience voter suppression and intimidation efforts, Yarbrough added.
“I’m glad I live in Illinois and access is paramount,” Yarbrough said.
While Chicagoans will soon elect 50 aldermen, dozens of new police district council members and a mayor, suburban Cook County will also be electing leaders in Dolton, Harvey and Riverdale. Other suburban voters will be asked to cast ballots on April 4.
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Voting is important because “it changes things,” Lewis said. But change doesn’t always come overnight, she indicated. When a reporter asked the 111-year-old to recall the good that’s come from her many years partaking in the democratic deed, she pushed back.
“It ain’t too good, but it’s better,” said Lewis, a Black woman who moved from Arkansas to Chicago as a toddler.
Lewis instilled a respect for voting in her three children, talking with them regularly about politics. While her kids — one girl and two boys — have since passed away, that value lives on in their children.
Lewis’ grandson Carlton Henry, 67, recalled his own mother, Constance Henry, being politically active and deeply concerned with civil rights. She’d call on the day of every election and ask her kids if they had voted yet.
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“She worked to get Harold Washington in,” Henry remembered. “It didn’t matter how old you were, she’d call, “Did you vote?” and make sure we got out there and voted.”
When his mother was casting ballots during the civil rights movement, it was hard to get change passed, he said.
“It seems like we have come far,” he said, “but we haven’t come that far. A lot of the fights we fought then, we’re still fighting today. And we still believe the voting system will eradicate them.”
Lewis, who was 17 years old when Chicago’s St. Valentine’s Day massacre occurred, survived a bout with COVID-19 and was lucky enough a century ago to avoid the Spanish Flu, sees much on the line in elections.
She views voting as a way “to try to stay free” and create more equity among Black and white people, she said.
“We are not free now,” she added. “No, we are not free.”