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Ella Marie Haddix was a freshman in college when she was asked to do something no other 18-year-old in the country had done — register to vote.
She was accompanied to the Randolph County courthouse by Jennings Randolph, a U.S. Senator from West Virginia and father of the 26th amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18.
“I just remember it was snowing and the roads were slick,” Haddix said in an interview this week. “Senator Randolph and I had to cross the street and we held onto each other crossing the street to the courthouse because we were afraid we’d fall down because the road was so slick.
Back at the courthouse, Haddix told him she planned to register as a Republican because her family were Republicans. Randolph was a life-long Democrat and she was worried it might embarrass him.
“He was very gracious about it,” she said. “I told him if he wanted to look for someone else that would be okay but he said ‘No absolutely not, it didn’t matter whether it was Democrat or Republican.’ It was that he finally managed to get this 26th Amendment through Congress. It was his privilege to take an 18-year-old to register.”
Fifty years ago Wednesday, the West Virginia Legislature voted to ratify the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Later that year, the amendment became law and millions of Americans between the ages of 18 and 21 like Haddix got the right to vote.
Today, Haddix is a retired art teacher in Randolph County. In the classroom, she tells her students the story of how she registered to vote and made sure they registered, too.
This year, to honor the occasion, West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner made Wednesday a special young voter registration day across the state.
“We’d like to get folks involved just as early as possible,” he said. “So this is focused at those 17 and 18-year-olds who are going to be able to vote in their first election — next year in 2022.”
Over 50 high schools in West Virginia will hold voter registration drives for eligible students.
“They see their classmates registering and go, ‘oh, what are you up to,’” Warner said. “We have people there with tables and so forth to actually give them the form and let them fill it out right on the spot.”
High schools that register at least 85% of the senior class will be eligible for the Jennings Randolph Award.
Lowering the voting age was a decades-long goal for Randolph.
Jo Boggess Phillips, a civics teacher and school librarian in Ripley, W.Va., is writing a biography about Randolph’s life and legacy. For the last few years, she’s researched his life and history as a lawmaker, using the state archives, his kids, and visits to every presidential library.
She said Randolph’s persistence set him apart from other lawmakers who tried to lower the voting age.
“He was one of the first and he never gave up,” Phillips said.
As a member of Congress, Randolph introduced legislation to lower the voting age, not once but 11 times.
She explains Randolph’s persistence by pointing to a quote from a Senate Committee hearing in 1961.
Randolph told his fellow senators that 18 to 21-year-olds “already bear the responsibilities of citizenship without its privileges.”
Phillips said Randolph was all about fairness when it came to the voting age. The senator believed the voting age should be lowered after the draft age was lowered to 18 during World War II.
“He had to work really hard at convincing those in power that these young people were capable of stepping up, and making decisions and creating ideas that would help the country,” she said.
When President Richard Nixon was elected, Randolph had been pushing to lower the voting age for over 25 years.
“I am convinced, Mr. President, there is no better way to initiate a broad national effort to express justifiable confidence in our young citizens, and bring them into full partnership in our society, than to lower the voting age,” Randolph wrote in a letter to Nixon in December 1969.
Initially, Nixon’s staff brushed him aside but slowly came around under the senator’s persistence.
“Basically, they said, ‘Listen, you know, Jennings Randolph, is really pressing us on this. And we really think, can we not just say something that would be supportive?’” Philips said, referencing another letter from the Nixon Presidential Library.
Finally, Randolph had found the right political moment for lowering the voting age.
The Nixon Administration supported the plan and with a significant grassroots campaign, it gained traction.
It passed both houses of Congress and was ratified by the states faster than any other amendment — three months and eight days.
Today, 17 to 21-year-olds make up about 6% of West Virginia voters and just under half of them voted in the 2020 election. Without the work of the late Sen. Randolph, they wouldn’t have been able to vote at all.