Secretary Of State's Office Brings Sen. Jennings Randolph Back To Life For Voting History
Fifty years ago, 18, 19 and 20 year olds were given the right to vote. West Virginia’s senior U.S. Senator at the time, Jennings Randolph, was instrumental in that effort. He introduced the legislation 11 times between 1942 and 1971. It ultimately became the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In honor of the anniversary, and in preparation for National Voter’s Registration Month, which arrives in September, Eric Douglas spoke with Mike Queen and Lee Dean from the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office.
Dean is a character actor and is taking on the persona of Randolph to tell the story of the amendment. He remained in character throughout the interview.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Douglas: Mike, explain to me where this project to bring the 26th Amendment to life began.
Queen: I'm from Harrison County and I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t know much about the role Jennings Randolph played in reducing the voting age from 21 to 18. Most people believe that the move started during the Vietnam War, when in all actuality, the fight to reduce the voting age from 21 to 18 started on Nov. 11, 1942. We just didn't know that story.
Somehow the story of Jennings Randolph and the 26th Amendment got lost. So we talked about it and came up with this idea. We studied him. We've had a good time doing that, learning about his background. And for me, being from Harrison County, it was a way for me to learn a little bit more about Harrison County.
Douglas: Why is it important to bring that memory to life?
Queen: You can't talk about engaging young people in the political process without this glaring white hot light being shown on the congressman, then senator, Jennings Randolph. It's an incredible story. So it's important to let people know that this wasn't just something that came about. This was something that was really thought out over nearly 30 years.
Douglas: So senator, explain to me why it was important for you to change the voting age. Why was it important for you to get the vote for 18, 19 and 20 year olds?
Dean/Randolph: Well, you know, I was born in 1902, and my father was a lawyer in Harrison County. And we were one of those families that talked about things. We talked about current events, we talked about things going on in our community, in our city, in our county, and in our country. So I couldn't wait to have the right to vote. I had opinions. I had thoughts. I had my own mind. And I wanted to have a say in who represented me in the capitol, whether it was in Charleston, or Washington D.C., or, or even on the board of education. I wanted to have input. Back then I had to wait until I was 21 to register to vote.
I was privileged to win a seat in Congress in Washington, D.C. representing West Virginia the same year Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to be president. I had the honor of taking my oath of office on the same day that he took his oath of office and my my what a man. I had the privilege to serve with nine U.S. presidents, but I don't know that there was a better man for the time period. He was elected during that Great Depression to bring us out of all that.
But you know, shortly after he was elected, Germany invaded Poland, and that thrust us into World War II, particularly when Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japan. And as Mr. Queen indicated, less than a year later, the president signed an executive order lowering the draft age from 21 to 18. And I just felt, if we expect these young men and women to fight and serve and die for their country, then should they not have the right to vote in their country? That launched my 29-year-effort to see that happen.
Douglas: Tell me what it was like in 1971, when you finally got the 26th amendment passed, and ratified.
Dean/Randolph: I first introduced that legislation during World War II, all the way to 1971, on the 11th time introducing that legislation. During the Vietnam War, I had to watch 600,000 18, 19 and 20 year olds get drafted to serve this great country. And 200,000 of them never came back home. They never had the right to vote in this country that sent them to fight.
So that's what kept fueling my fight. The language never changed in the legislation. I think just the culture itself changed and was more ready to receive the 18, 19 and 20 year olds. America was seeing family members drafted, they had cousins and brothers and uncles fighting for this great country. And I think they finally just realized it was time to get on board. It passed the House on March 23. And passed the Senate. West Virginia ratified the 26th Amendment on April 28.
Douglas: Tell me about the first person, the first 18 year old to get the right to vote.
Dean/Randolph: Just because on April 28, West Virginia ratified it didn't mean the first 18 year old could run right out and register to vote at their county courthouse. When that passed and was ratified there were now 11 million newly eligible voters. And so it took some time to get voter registration systems updated in this country.
Finally, in February of 1972, the White House called me and they said “Sen. Jennings Randolph, you're by far a prominent U.S. senator, and you're considered the father of the 26th Amendment. We would like to bestow upon you the honor of selecting the first 18 year old in America to register to vote.” Well, I thought, “my what a wonderful opportunity.”
I just so happened to be at my office in Elkins, West Virginia. And so I got off the phone and I instantly called over to Davis and Elkins College right there in Elkins and I said, “Get me an 18 year old that's willing and wants to register to vote. I'm going to take them to the courthouse and do that.” So I drove my car over there. And sure enough, they had a nice young lady waiting on the sidewalk for me to pick up and drive over there. Her name was Ella Mae Thompson.
We got to talking on the drive over to the courthouse and she told me it meant a lot to her to do this. And she began telling me why. She had a brother named Robert Thompson. He was drafted to serve this country in 1965. And Sgt. Robert Thompson, unfortunately, never came back home. He died serving his country in 1967. So she said “Today, senator, I'm not just registering for myself. I'm registering in memory and honor of my brother Robert, who never had the right to vote, but died serving this country.”
I thought “My goodness, I could not have found a better young person to be the first person to register to vote.” But let me tell you something that happened. So she looks at me after that, and she gets kind of a serious look. And I said, “Well, what is the matter, my dear young lady?” She said, “Senator, I feel I need to tell you this. I come from a family of Republicans, Senator. And I know you're a very renowned Democrat, but I feel I need to let you know that my family's Republican and I will be registering as a Republican.”
I'm not gonna lie. I gripped that steering wheel and I thought “My God Jennings, you fought 29 years to get these 18, 19 and 20 year olds the right to vote. The first one your register registers the opposite party. Oh, my God, your colleagues are gonna haze you and just kid you and just be unmerciful to you, Jennings.”
She went so far as to say, “Would you like to go back over to campus and find a Democrat?” I said, “No, no. The main thing is you're getting registered to vote. That's all that matters here.”
She went on to be a teacher in the Randolph County School System and she still votes. We got to reunite with her not too long ago, and we got to meet her and we got to sort of reenact that moment. We met her at Davis and Elkins College, and we went down to the courthouse and we reenacted the walk that we took. We went inside the courthouse, and we found her original voter registration card. You talk about just some emotion that came flooding back to her mind. It was a beautiful, special moment. It was a West Virginia senator that gave the right to vote to every 18, 19 and 20 year old for generations to come. And so I always stress to young people, “I gave you the right to vote, but it's your responsibility to vote.”
For more information on Dean’s performances, contact the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office.