Fifty years ago today, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the 26th Amendment, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. The House approved the amendment 401 to 19. Just two weeks earlier, the U.S. Senate passed the amendment unanimously.
One of the Senators casting a “yea” vote was Jennings Randolph from West Virginia, who was an early and unwavering advocate for the cause.
Randolph began pushing to give younger Americans the right vote during World War II. President Franklin Roosevelt lowered the minimum age for the draft to 18. Randolph, then a member of the House, introduced his first attempt to lower the voting age in 1942.
The effort failed, and it would fail again and again over the next 30 years.
But Randolph’s argument became a rallying cry for the movement: 18, 19 and 20 year olds were “old enough to fight and die for their country, but not old enough to vote for the leaders who were sending them to these conflicts.”
The issue returned to the forefront during the Vietnam War, as youth-driven protests against the war spread across college campuses. Again, young men were being drafted to fight and die, but they remained disenfranchised from the voting process.
In 1970, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act Amendments. One of the provisions required states to register 18, 19 and 20 years olds to vote. Oregon challenged the constitutionality of the law.
A divided U.S. Supreme Court in Oregon v. Mitchell (1970) ruled that Congress only had the right to regulate the voting age in federal elections, but not state and local elections. That was half a loaf for young voters and a confusing circumstance for election officials.
The following year, on Senator Randolph’s 11th try, Congress passed the 26th Amendment. It read: “The right of citizens in the United States, who are 18 years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age.”
A Senate report concluded: Younger citizens are fully mature enough to vote, 18-year-olds bear adult responsibilities and younger voters should be given a chance to “influence our society in a peaceful and constructive manner.”
The amendment still needed approval of three-fourths (38) of the states, and that happened quickly. West Virginia became the 26th state to ratify the Amendment on April 28. On July 1, North Carolina became the 38th state to ratify the amendment and four days later President Richard Nixon signed the document into law.
It had been three decades since Randolph first brought the legislation before Congress, and now the right to vote for people 18, 19 and 20 was established in the U.S. Constitution.
“I believe that our young people possess a great social conscience, are perplexed by injustices which exist in the world and are anxious to rectify these ills,” Randolph said.
Randolph retired from the Senate in 1985, clearing the way for his successor, Jay Rockefeller. Randolph died in 1998 at the age of 96. His legacy includes recognition as “Father of the 26th Amendment.”