On July 5th, the nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the passage of the 26th Amendment to the United States Constitution. That amendment would have never been possible without the continued leadership of the late U.S. Senator Jennings Randolph of West Virginia.
In 1971, the 26th Amendment was ratified by 38 states in just 100 days – making it the quickest ratification of any of the Constitution’s 27 Amendments. But it took nearly three decades for the idea of reducing the legal voting age to make its way through the halls of the United States Congress.
On November 11, 1942, then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an Executive Order reducing the mandatory draft age from 21 to 18 in order to provide troop support for America and our allies in World War II. Just days later, it was a young congressman from West Virginia who stood on the floor of the House of Representatives and said, “Mr. President, if you’re old enough to serve and die for your country, then you’re certainly old enough to vote”.
Then-Congressman Jennings Randolph was born and raised in Harrison County. He was just 31 years old when he was first elected to Congress. He was proud to have taken his oath of office on the same day as President Roosevelt but he was disappointed in the President’s refusal to support reducing the voting age to match the new draft age of 18.
In fact, reducing the voting age from 21 to 18 wasn’t popular with either of the major political parties of the time. Democrats and Republicans in Congress refused to support Randolph’s desire to seek an amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing every citizen of at least 18 years of age the right to vote. While 18, 19 and 20-year-olds were being drafted to fight for the United States in wars and conflicts all over the world, they did so without the right to vote for or against the leaders who decided on our involvement.
In 1958, Congressman Randolph was elected to represent West Virginia in the United States Senate. In the much smaller but more powerful U.S. Senate, Senator Randolph continued his fight for the passage of the 26th Amendment.
The fight wasn’t easy and it certainly wasn’t quick. In fact, it wasn’t until the height of the Vietnam War with national television news outlets on a nightly basis showing young soldiers being carried from the battlefield that public sentiment for reducing the voting age turned towards support for Randolph’s initiative.
It took Randolph 29 years to get the idea of reducing the voting age to 18 passed by Congress and then to the states for ratification. What took Randolph nearly three decades to get through Congress took only 100 days to get ratified by the required 38 states. The ratification took place on July 1, 1971. The West Virginia legislature ratified the 26th Amendment on April 29, 1971.
On July 5, 1971, then-President Richard Nixon made it official and signed the 26th Amendment into law. With the stroke of a pen, more than 11 million new voters (ages 18, 19 and 20) were made eligible to vote.
Through Senator Randolph’s leadership, West Virginia played a significant role in reducing the voting age to 18 in the United States. Because of that leadership, the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office has helped to lead the nation in the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the passage of the 26th Amendment.
The centerpiece to the West Virginia effort is the Jennings Randolph Award for civic engagement in high schools. The award is given to any public or private high school with a student-led effort that successfully registers at least 85% of their eligible students to vote. Four years ago, Secretary of State Mac Warner reconnected the award and its objective with more than 220 West Virginia high schools.
In just 54 months, Warner’s office worked with West Virginia’s county clerks to register more than 67,000 eligible high school students to vote.
“One of our accomplishments that I’m most proud of is encouraging an incredible number of our young people to register to vote while still in high school,” Secretary Warner said. “Eligible citizens who are registered to vote can be engaged to participate in our election process. If we can register citizens early, I believe that we can keep them engaged their entire lives.”
In addition to registering voters, Warner and his team are promoting the personal leadership of Jennings Randolph. Character actor Lee Dean of Huntington is also a Field Representative for the Secretary of State’s Office. Dean has been traveling the state with Warner portraying Senator Randolph. The two men also use online streaming, Facebook, Zoom and Teams to meet and talk with groups and organizations throughout the state.
Using Randolph’s own words, Dean is bringing the history of the 26th Amendment alive. Clad in young Randolph’s trademark white suit, Dean’s portrayal of the congressman, then-senator, who never gave up on young people is fun and fact-filled for every audience.
Warner is a member of the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS). His office has shared West Virginia’s history, award programs, and 50th-anniversary strategy with election officials throughout the country.
Under Warner’s leadership, it is now easier than ever in West Virginia to register to vote online anytime at www.GoVoteWV.com.