Sometimes when people mention the United States Constitution, they might be able to recite the 1st Amendment’s rights to free press and freedom of religion, or they might speak of the 2nd Amendment’s right to bear arms. But what do you know about the other amendments to the Constitution?
I want to talk to you specifically about the 26th Amendment, its importance, and West Virginia’s role in its passage and ratification.
The adoption of the 26th Amendment all started with U.S. Senator Jennings Randolph of West Virginia, who believed that adults age 18 through 20 should be able to vote. He first introduced the amendment as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1942, arguing that young soldiers fighting in World War II should be able to vote. He reintroduced the amendment 10 more times during his congressional career.
Finally, in 1971, Senator Randolph’s initiative had received the attention from Congress that it needed. The drive to reduce the voting age from 21 to 18 grew across the country during the 1960’s, driven in large part by the broader movement concerned over the Vietnam War. During that War, many young men who were ineligible to vote were drafted to fight in the war, but lacked any means to influence the people sending them off to risk their lives. “Old Enough to Fight, Old Enough to Vote!” was a common slogan used by proponents of lowering the voting age.
Senator Randolph was persistent in his pursuit of the 26th Amendment and the country’s concern over the Vietnam War reached an all-time high. On March 10, 1971, members of the U.S. Senate followed the Senator from West Virginia’s lead and voted 94–0 in favor of proposing a Constitutional amendment to guarantee the minimum voting age of 18. On March 23, 1971, the House of Representatives voted 401–19 in favor of the proposed amendment. By July 5, 1971, the 26th Amendment was officially ratified and adopted into our Constitution.
Attending that adoption ceremony was Joseph Loyd, Jr., then of Detroit, Michigan. As a member of the Young Americans in Concert, the traveling show choir was in Washington, D.C. that day and was invited to the signing ceremony with President Richard Nixon. With the drawing of three names from a hat, Mr. Loyd was chosen to be a witness and to sign his name to the adoption papers for 26th Amendment. Mr. Loyd has lived and worked in the Kanawha Valley for the past 41 years.
Another key player to this story is Ella Mae Thompson Haddix, a teacher at Tygarts Valley High School in Randolph County. In 1966, Mrs. Haddix’s family suffered the loss of her only brother, Robert Thompson, who as a soldier drafted by the U.S. Army paid the ultimate sacrifice in duty to his country. Mrs. Haddix became the first 18-year old in America to register to vote, having been escorted to the Randolph County Clerk’s Office by Senator Randolph himself.
On Thursday of this past week, I had the privilege of talking with Mr. Loyd and Mrs. Haddix at a celebration of the 45th anniversary of the passage of the 26th Amendment by Congress. Mrs. Haddix joined us from Tygarts Valley High School by Skype, and we live-streamed the event to high schools across West Virginia from our beautiful Culture Center’s Museum Theater.
We were joined by Delegate Saira Blair from Berkeley County and Delegate Chuck Romine from Cabell County. At the age of 17 in 2014, Delegate Blair was nominated by her party and then ultimately elected to the WV House of Delegates at age 18 – making her the youngest elected legislator in the history of our country. In 1971, Delegate Romine was in the WV House of Delegates at the time when the state ratified the 26th Amendment. Current Delegate Frank Deem from Wood County was then a member of the WV State Senate. Both supported the 26th Amendment and voted to ratify.
Also joining us for the panel discussion was Randall Reid-Smith, Commissioner of the Division of Culture and History. I want to thank him and his staff for helping us celebrate the 26th Amendment and West Virginia’s unique role in its passage. The Culture Center is one of the state’s jewels, and the Museum Theater is a wonderful resource for schools to use to connect with lawmakers and history makers.
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the work of our Field Service Representatives and our friends in Inspire West Virginia. This past week our Field Service Representatives and Inspire Leaders were in 22 schools across West Virginia. Working with county clerks in 12 counties, our Field Team was able to register more than 400 eligible students to vote. Field Representatives also spent time this past week talking with students about West Virginia’s role in giving them that right.
For the last month we’ve been rewarding students in the Inspire-WV program who have worked hard to register their fellow students to vote. This year, 16 students qualified to become an “Honorary Secretary of State.” Each honoree was recognized by the Legislature and spent a great deal of their day learning more about our staff and all that the Secretary of State’s Office does. These young adults are our future leaders and we want to do everything we can to instill in them a love for civic engagement.
Students and teachers across the state are working with their local county clerks to get 100 percent of the eligible students at their schools registered to vote. Any high school able to achieve this goal will qualify them to be recognized as a “Jennings Randolph School.” This designation sends a message loud and clear that the high school, its teachers and its students have a clear understanding and appreciation for the importance of the right to vote in our American democracy.
As America and West Virginia celebrates the 45th anniversary of the 26th Amendment, Senator Jennings Randolph’s legacy lives on.
WV Secretary of State