North Dakota, one of the first states to adopt voter registration in 1880, abolished the requirement in 1951. In every other state in the United States, it is the responsibility of the citizen to get registered, essentially making voting a two-step process.

The good news is that it takes only a few minutes to register. It will actually take only two minutes for Illinois residents to register online at https://www.vote.org/register-to-vote/illinois/

In February 2020, the late Representative John Lewis issued a call to action to all Americans. “We must go out and vote like we never ever voted before. Some people gave more than a little blood. Some gave their very lives,” the Congressman said in an impassioned  speech at this year’s “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Ala. The annual march commemorates March 7, 1965 when Mr. Lewis – then a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee –  and others were brutally beaten by state troopers while peacefully demonstrating for voting rights.

On March 21, National Guard troops provided federal protection of a crowd of demonstrators that had reached 25,000 by the time they arrived at the state capitol in Montgomery.

Soon afterward, on Aug. 6, 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which effectively extended the right to vote to African Americans.  Although the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed in 1870, states that the right to vote cannot be denied by the federal or state governments based on race, the law was not widely enforced by state officials. Instead, they enacted poll taxes, literacy tests and other intimidation tactics that prevented African Americans from registering to vote.

In 2013, in Shelby County v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated key parts of the Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of discrimination against minority voters to get approval from the federal government before making new laws that could make it more difficult for minorities to vote.

Since the death of Rep. Lewis, civil rights activists and Democratic lawmakers have pushed to restore the Voting Rights Act and name it in honor of the Congressman, who was widely known as “the conscience of the Congress.”

Voting rights for groups other than land-owning white males have been contested throughout U.S. history. Women were denied the right to vote until 1920, when the 19th Amendment was ratified. Prior to that, women had only been able to vote in certain states. And it was not until 1971 that 18-year-olds could vote, under the 26th Amendment.

Looking back at colonial America, only freeholders – defined by the Colony of Virginia voting law of 1736 as a white male 21 years of age who owns at least 100 acres of unimproved land or 25 improved acres with a house and a “plantation” – had the right to vote. Since land was readily available and affordable, up to 75% of white males in most colonies qualified as voters, according to information published on the Constitutional Rights Foundation website. After eliminating everyone else, including white males too poor to own land, the colonial electorate consisted of an estimated 10-20% of the total population.

Even after the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1787, there was no national standard for voting rights. States were given the power to regulate their own voting laws. Only 6% of the population could vote when George Washington was elected president in 1789, according to the U.S. Voting Rights Time Line, published by the Northern California Citizenship Project.

In the 2016 presidential election, 61.4% of the citizen voting-age population reported voting. Similarly, 61.8% reported voting in 2012. Far fewer Americans vote in non-presidential election years. Yet a single vote can determine the outcome of an election. And every vote reaffirms this country’s democracy.

The November 2020 presidential election will be amid the intersection of health, economic and social crises that have changed everyday life for all Americans. Aug. 11 marked the announcement by presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden of his running mate, Kamala Harris. Most Americans will be voting for either the incumbent President Donald Trump, who is expected to run with current Vice President Mike Pence; or former vice president to President Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Sen. Harris.

While the degree to which vice presidential candidates persuade voters has long been debated, the selection of Sen. Harris represents the breaking of barriers. She is the first Black woman and the first person of Indian descent to be nominated for national office by a major party. She is the daughter of immigrant parents, and the first-ever representative of a state west of the Rocky Mountains to be nominated by the Democratic Party to run for president or vice president.

John Lewis and many others like him fought for voting rights with a better future in mind for all Americans. As voting rights were expanded, so were the possibilities for fair and representative leadership in government.

“We must use the vote as a nonviolent instrument or tool to redeem the soul of America," said Rep. Lewis.