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State officials, guests celebrate anniversary of 26th Amendment passage

By Lexi Browning

For The West Virginia Press Association

 

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Secretary of State Mac Warner joined lawmakers and local high school students this week to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the 26th Amendment’s passage, which enabled citizens 18 and older to vote.

 

Warner was accompanied by Ella Mae Thompson Haddix, the first American 18-year-old to register to vote, Joe Loyd, signatory to the amendment’s passage, Commissioner Randall Reid-Smith and Delegates Saira Blair and Chuck Romine in a ceremony Wednesday at the West Virginia Culture and History Center.

 

 

Prior to the amendment’s passage, voters had to be 21 years old to cast their ballots but 18 to enlist in the draft. The amendment itself was prompted, in part, by the Vietnam War drafts, said Mike Queen, deputy chief of staff and director of communications.

 

U.S. Sen. Jennings Randolph, a West Virginia native and representative, sponsored the proposed amendment 11 times over the course of his 29-year legislative career. His first attempt came in 1942 in the U.S. House of Representatives, Queen said.

 

“Sen. Randolph was persistent in his pursuit of the 26th amendment,” Queen said. “Then, in 1970, the country’s concern of the Vietnam War reached an all-time high. On March 10 1971, members of the U.S. Senate followed the lead of the West Virginia senator in voting 94-0 in favor of the proposed amendment.”

 

Two weeks later, the House of Representatives voted 401-19 in favor of the amendment’s adoption. On March 23, it was adopted by Congress and sent out for ratification. On April 7, West Virginia became the 27th state to ratify the amendment.

 

In Michigan, 18-year-old Loyd had just been selected as the Duke Ellington Scholar in the Detroit Symphony Youth Orchestra. While traveling between concerts, the group passed through Washington D.C. where they received an invitation from the White House to join the signing.

 

“I was on the elevator in the hotel, and I heard someone say they were going to select a few 18-year-olds,” Loyd said. “There were 9 of us in the group of 500. I said a quick prayer that I would get it.”

 

With 18-year-old Loyd and two other teenage signatories by his side, President Richard Nixon signed the amendment into law in July of that year, allowing 11 million citizens between the ages of 18 and 20 to vote.

 

In 1972, Sen. Randolph escorted 18-year-old Haddix to the Randolph County Clerk’s Office. For Haddix, the need to vote was personal: her brother tragically died on his last day of duty in Vietnam.

 

“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. It had a big impact on my dad; he changed political affiliation because of it.”

 

Haddix, who participated via Skype from her substitute teaching position at Tygarts Valley, held up an article featuring her registration and read an excerpt to the audience:

 

“Randolph explained to Ms. Thompson that the important thing was to vote, not whether the vote was Democrat or Republican,” the article stated.

 

Del. Chuck Romine, R-Cabell, and then-Senator Frank Dean, R-Wood, who both continue to serve in the West Virginia House of Delegates, both voted in favor of the amendment’s ratification when it was presented in 1971.

 

“It’s an honor to be here today and it was an honor then for me to have the opportunity to vote for the amendment,” Romine said. “It was interesting. We did some investigating and found the voting record of it from 1971: it was 94 years, 1 nay and five abstaining. It was an overwhelming desire in the House of Delegates to legalize voting for those who were 18 and older.”

 

Del. Saira Blair, who became the youngest elected legislator in the United States in 2014, said without the amendment, her early political career may not have been possible.

 

At age 16, Blair decided she wanted to run for office after she participated in the Youth in Government Program. Her peers confided that if they could not change the state, they may have to search for jobs elsewhere. For Blair, that ignited a spark.

 

“It moved me,” Blair said. “I love this state, but there are a lot of things that scare me and my fellow youth and if there aren’t changes made, we’re going to continue leaving. I made the decision to run for office.”

 

Blair said she still receives 5-10 emails per month from young leaders asking her for advice in their campaigns.

 

Reid-Smith added that the event’s location was ideal given the amendment’s roots in the Mountain State.

 

“There’s no better place to do a presentation such as this because we are the keepers of the stories of our state and there’s no greater story than the 26th amendment and the father of it, Sen. Randolph,” Reid-Smith said.

 

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