Giving Young People the Right to Vote

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Many arguments about lowering the voting age in the United States from 21 to 18 were based on the argument that if people were old enough to fight, they were also old enough to vote. Here, Tech. Sgt. Michael Cook (right), 386th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron voting assistance officer, helps Senior Airman Michael Oberbrockling register to vote an air base in Southwest Asia.

When the voting age in the United States was 21, supporters of lowering the age to 18 argued that if people could join the military at that age, they were also old enough to vote. Here, a voting assistance officer helps an airman register to vote at an air base in Southwest Asia.

On Tuesday, November 7, 2017, American voters will go to the polls. Unlike the 2016 national election, this time, voters will not be asked to select a president or members of Congress. Voters in New Jersey and Virginia will have the opportunity to vote for their states’ governors. The cities of Cincinnati, Ohio; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and St. Petersburg, Florida are just some of the cities casting votes for mayor.

Voters in West Virginia, however, already voted last month. In an October 7 special election, voters were asked whether they approved legislation that would help improve roads. About 73 percent of West Virginia voters said “yes.” Among them were young people voting for the first time.

In October, thirteen high schools in West Virginia conducted voter registration drives. Students who were 18 years old, or who will be 18 by the date of the next general election, were eligible. More than 1,000 students registered. West Virginia’s Secretary of State Mac Warner said the registration drives demonstrate the “level of commitment school administrators have for the civic engagement of our youngest voters.” West Virginia schools are planning another voting drive in November.

If a West Virginia high school registers all of its eligible students, it receives an award called the Jennings Randolph Award. The award is named for former U.S. Congressman Jennings Randolph, from West Virginia. He served in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. In 1971, Randolph authored the Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This amendment lowered the voting age, which had been 21, to age 18. In 2016, 16 high schools across West Virginia earned this award.

A West Virginia Senator

Jennings Randolph was born in Salem, West Virginia, in 1902. While in school, he won varsity letters in basketball, tennis, and track. After graduating from college in 1924, Randolph pursued a career in journalism. After working in the newspaper field, he served as the head the department of public speaking and journalism at Davis and Elkins College in Elkins, West Virginia.

Randolph, a member of the Democratic party, eventually pursued a career in politics. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1932.

In 1933, Randolph was present at President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s creation of the New Deal. The New Deal was legislation enacted to help people who had been affected by the Great Depression. Throughout his career, Randolph stood by his support of the New Deal. “Was it wrong,” he asked, “to take the unemployed of this country and put them back to work building roads and bridges? Was it wrong for FDR to reopen the banks of this great nation with guaranteed deposits so people no longer would face the threat of losing their lifelong savings? Was it wrong to provide electricity to the country’s rural areas? Or to take the working children out of the lofts and the darkness?”

A popular politician, Randolph served a total of 14 years in the House. After he was defeated in 1946, Randolph became an executive in the airplane industry. He re-entered politics in 1958, when he was elected to the U.S. Senate to fill the unexpired term of Senator Matthew M. Neely, who had died while in office. Randolph’s Senate career lasted until 1984, when he decided not to run again.

Throughout his career, Randolph championed causes important to his home state. Much of West Virginia’s economy was based on coal mining. Mining, however, was dangerous work. Miners could get injured on the job, or develop diseases caused by breathing in coal dust. Randolph supported legislation in 1969 to help coal miners who suffered from black lung disease.

Randolph was an advocate for programs that brought aid to people who lived in the U.S. Appalachian region, where West Virginia is located. He sponsored the 1965 Appalachian Regional Development Act, which created the Appalachian Regional Commission. ”I essentially am a West Virginia Senator,” Randolph remarked. ”I’m not what you’d call a national Senator or international Senator.”

West Virginia Congressman Jennings Randolph, pictured here in 1938 or 1939, advocated lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 throughout his career. He introduced legislation eleven times before it finally was passed in 1971.

West Virginia Congressman Jennings Randolph advocated lowering the voting age from 21 to 18, throughout his career. He introduced this legislation eleven times before it finally was passed in 1971.

“Old Enough to Fight, Old Enough to Vote!”

Randolph, however, became best known for his work in lowering the U.S. voting age to 18.

During World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt lowered the minimum age for the military draft from 21 to 18. However, the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protected the right to vote for “male inhabitants of [each] state, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States.” Although states were allowed to lower the voting age, it wasn’t required.

Some people believed that it was unfair that people under 21 were called upon to serve as soldiers, yet they still didn’t have the right to vote. Their belief was reflected in the slogan, “Old enough to fight; old enough to vote.”

Jennings Randolph agreed. He introduced legislation to Congress in 1942 to lower the voting age from 21 to 18. Unfortunately, at first the legislation did not pass. Randolph was persistent, however. He thought that the country needed the input of young people. Randolph said that young voters “possess a great social conscience, are perplexed by the injustices in the world and are anxious to rectify those ills.”

The West Virginia Congressman would sponsor this legislation eleven times before it was finally ratified in 1971.

It was another war that drove the legislation. By the time of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, most states still restricted voting rights to people 21 and older. Because so many men between 18 and 20 were being drafted to fight in Vietnam, Congress came under pressure to lower the voting age. As a result, Congress amended the Voting Rights Act in 1970. This amendment lowered the voting age to 18 for all federal, state, and local elections.

However, later in 1970, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that under current law, while Congress had the power to lower the voting age for national elections, it could not lower it for state or local elections. Before the voting age could be lowered, there would need to be an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Randolph and other Senators championed the amendment. The Twenty-Sixth Amendment was ratified in 1971.

Youth Voters

The Senate Report accompanying the Twenty-Sixth Amendment explained why the Senate supported it. Since most people from 18 to 20 years of age had completed high school or some college, they were mature enough to vote. The report also wrote that 18-year-olds “bear all or most of an adult’s responsibilities.” This point was especially important since over half of American military killed in Vietnam were between 18 and 20 years old. Finally, the report said that younger voters should be given the chance “to influence our society in a peaceful and constructive manner.” Senators were concerned that if young people were not allowed to vote, they might instead turn to violent or disruptive protests to voice their opinions.

The first American 18-year-old to register to vote was West Virginian Ella Mae Thompson Haddix. In 1972, Senator Randolph escorted Haddix to West Virginia’s Randolph County Clerk’s Office to register. For Haddix, the right to vote was a serious one. Her brother had been killed in Vietnam on his last day of duty.

“During that whole process, I remember people being upset about being drafted like my brother was with no choice and with no say in what was happening,” Haddix said. “My story started with his death.”

In the 1972 elections, 55.4 percent of youth voters participated. Unfortunately, from then on, the participation of voters aged 18 to 24 has steadily declined. By the time of the 1988 presidential election, only 36 percent of young voters went to the polls. The 2008 presidential election of Barack Obama did see an increase in youth voters. The turnout was 49 percent for voters from 18 to 24 years old, the second highest turnout of this age range in history.

When Randolph retired from politics in an 1984, he recalled his first campaign in 1932. “I had an overriding desire to help people to upgrade, to benefit our people,” he remembered.

Jennings Randolph said that his philosophy in life came from advice his father once gave him in a letter: “Remember the man and woman by the way side of the road.” Randolph died in 1998.

Additional Resources

Read more about West Virginia’s program to register younger voters at West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the Montgomery Herald.

Learn more about Jennings Randolph at the Appalachian Regional Commission and the New York Times.

Do you want to register to vote? Find out how at

Images and Sources

Military voting photo: U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Raheem Moore
Military voting photo license: public domain

Jennings Randolph portrait photo: Library of Congress
Jennings Randolph portrait photo license: public domain