Can Manchin answer his predecessor’s call on voting rights?

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) arrives at the Capitol for a nomination vote on June 21
Greg Nash

With his voting rights proposal last week and a compromise on the all-imperative For the People Act, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) carries forward the vital legacy of his predecessor, former West Virginia Sen. Jennings Randolph (D). The For the People Act was filibustered Tuesday by Senate Republicans who blocked debate from the beginning, although it enjoys overwhelming bipartisan support by voters and proposes popular reforms like universal vote by mail, measures to prevent billionaires from buying elections and an end to partisan gerrymandering. 

This week’s outcome is the opening salvo for a summer-long fight to protect voting rights. An important companion measure yet to be introduced — the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — aims to restore the full power of the Voting Rights Act, which the Supreme Court gutted in 2013, when it found its coverage formula to be outdated. The Lewis Act will prevent future anti-voter state laws from being introduced by updating the formula and restoring Department of Justice pre-clearance. Manchin supports the measure and recently posited that it enjoys bipartisan support on the Hill, despite comments earlier this month by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) deeming it “unnecessary.” 

Can Manchin answer his predecessor’s call on voting rights? Research of archival documents and texts for our books on voting rights history revealed that throughout his career in Congress, first in the House (1933-47) and then in the Senate (1958-85), Randolph consistently pushed for the expansion and protection of what he called the “franchise of freedom.” A small “d” Democrat and member of the Democratic Party, Randolph was strongly committed to the democratic process and believed passionately in the power of government to promote the common good. “If America speaks and if the spirit of the country says action must come,” he told the Washington Post in March of 1942, “you’ll find a hearty and hasty response in Congress.”  

Working to ensure that every American had the opportunity to exercise the right to vote, including young Americans, Randolph rightly earned the title “Father of the 26th Amendment.” Next week marks the 50th anniversary of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18 and outlawed age discrimination in access to the ballot. With voting rights again on the agenda for Congress and the country, and Manchin emerging as a central figure in advancing what will hopefully be Congress’s largest architectural commitment to voting rights since 1965, it’s a good time to recall the legacy Manchin inherits from his West Virginia predecessor. 

Randolph first pressed for youth suffrage during the darkest days of World War II, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized the need for more troops and proposed to lower the draft age to eighteen. In the August 1944 edition of Congressional Digest, Randolph noted: If the draft age must drop to eighteen, so too should the voting age. “Who will say they are old enough to use bullets, but too young to use ballots?” Knowing his answer, Randolph launched the first of eleven proposals for a constitutional amendment to lower the voting age, an effort which would take three decades to achieve.

Randolph’s persistent push for the youth vote fit within what he saw as the nation’s arc towards democratic inclusion. In congressional testimony in June of 1961, he harkened back to “the great tradition of the Anglo-American democracy,” in which “we have slowly but steadily departed from the conception of voting as a privilege of property and advanced toward the realization of voting as the right of a person.”  

Randolph also believed that expanding the franchise benefited the nation by bringing new energy and fresh perspectives to the workings of government. He had turned eighteen just days before his state’s close battle for women’s suffrage was won in 1920. He was quoted in an October 1943 joint resolution proposing the Constitutional amendment to extend the vote to citizens eighteen years of age, saying he remembered “as a young man, listening to heated debate in my State on the subject,” He enthused that West Virginian women had used their vote for the state’s betterment ever since.

With the 19th Amendment in his living memory, Randolph supported three additional suffrage amendments. In the early 1940s, as chair of the House Committee on the District of Columbia, he advanced a constitutional amendment to expand voting rights for Washingtonians. He strongly urged bipartisan support for the bill and confidently predicted its passage. Although Randolph’s prediction has yet to fully manifest — and full representation and voting rights will only come with D.C. statehood — he proudly participated in achieving the 23rd Amendment twenty years later, which gave D.C. citizens the right to participate in presidential elections in 1961. Soon after, he played a part in abolishing the poll tax as a cosponsor of the 24th Amendment, which invalidated in 1964 a languishing economic restriction that was still disenfranchising citizens, particularly Black citizens, in five states.

Still, it was Randolph’s role as the “Father of the 26th Amendment” that had the greatest impact. Randolph’s persistence in proposing the 18-year-old vote was legendary. Over 30 years, he reached across the aisle and built bipartisan support for what would become the quickest passage and ratification of an amendment in U.S. history. Fifty years on we recognize this historic achievement as well as the 26th Amendment’s “unfulfilled promise.”

Of course Manchin operates in a vastly different political context today. The Republican Party is now led by those who not only seek to suppress voting rights, but provide a platform for the Big Lie of a stolen election. Only months ago did this propaganda beget a violent insurrection in the nation’s Capitol. 

Amid this existential crisis, the measures up for consideration next in Congress are a lifeline to securing our democracy’s future: D.C. Statehood, and the John Lewis Advancement Act. 

Jennifer Frost is associate professor of history at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and author of the forthcoming “Let Us Vote!” Youth Voting Rights and the 26th Amendment.”

Yael Bromberg, Esq. is principal of Bromberg Law LLC and a lecturer at Rutgers School of Law where she teaches Elections & the Political Process. She is author of “Youth Voting Rights and the Unfulfilled Promise of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment.”

Tags Election law For the People Act Jennings Randolph Jennings Randolph Joe Manchin Joe Manchin John Lewis John Lewis Voting Rights Act Mitch McConnell Twenty-sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution Voter suppression Voting age Voting in the United States Washington DC statehood

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