The 26th Amendment: Voting Rights for 18-Year Olds

Man voting in polling place
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The 26th Amendment to the United States Constitution bars the federal government, as well as all state and local governments, from using age as a justification for denying the right to vote to any citizen of the United States who is at least 18 years of age. In addition, the Amendment grants Congress the power to “enforce” that prohibition through “appropriate legislation.”

The complete text of the 26th Amendment states:

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.

Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

The 26th Amendment was incorporated into the Constitution just three months and eight days after Congress sent it to the states for ratification, thus making it the quickest amendment to be ratified. Today, it stands as one of several laws protecting the right to vote.

While the 26th Amendment moved forward at light-speed once it was submitted to the states, getting it to that point took nearly 30 years.

History of the 26th Amendment

During the darkest days of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order lowering the minimum age for the military draft age to 18, despite the fact that the minimum voting age — as set by the states — remained at 21.

This discrepancy spurred a nationwide youth voting rights movement mobilized under the slogan “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote.” In 1943, Georgia became the first state to drop its minimum voting age in state and local elections only from 21 to 18.

However, the minimum voting remained at 21 in most states until the 1950s, when WWII hero and President Dwight D. Eisenhower threw his support behind lowering it.

“For years our citizens between the ages of 18 and 21 have, in time of peril, been summoned to fight for America,” Eisenhower declared in his 1954 State of the Union address. “They should participate in the political process that produces this fateful summons.”

Despite Eisenhower’s support, proposals for a Constitutional amendment setting a standardized national voting age were opposed by the states.

Enter the Vietnam War

During the late 1960s, demonstrations against America’s long and costly involvement in the Vietnam War began to bring the hypocrisy of drafting 18-year-olds while denying them the right to vote to the attention of Congress.  Indeed, over half of the nearly 41,000 American servicemembers killed in action during the Vietnam War were between 18 and 20 years old.

In 1969 alone, at least 60 resolutions to lower the minimum voting age were introduced — but ignored — in Congress. In 1970, Congress finally passed a bill extending the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that included a provision lowering the minimum voting age to 18 in all federal, state and local elections. While President Richard M. Nixon signed the bill, he attached a signing statement publicly expressing his opinion that the voting age provision was unconstitutional.

“Although I strongly favor the 18-year-old vote,” Nixon stated, “I believe — along with most of the Nation’s leading constitutional scholars — that Congress has no power to enact it by simple statute, but rather it requires a constitutional amendment.”

Supreme Court Agrees With Nixon

Just a year later, in the 1970 case of Oregon v. Mitchell, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with Nixon, ruling in a 5-4 decision that Congress had the power to regulate the minimum age in federal elections but not in state and local elections. The Court’s majority opinion, written by Justice Hugo Black, clearly stated that under the Constitution only the states have the right to set voter qualifications.

The Court’s ruling meant that while 18- to 20-year-olds would be eligible to vote for president and vice president, they could not vote for state or local officials who were up for election on the ballot at the same time.

With so many young men and women being sent to war — but still denied the right to vote — more states began to demand a constitutional amendment establishing a uniform national voting age of 18 in all elections in all states.

The time for the 26th Amendment had come at last.

Passage and Ratification of the 26th Amendment

In Congress — where it rarely does so — progress came swiftly.

On March 10, 1971, the U.S. Senate voted 94-0 in favor of the proposed 26th Amendment. On March 23, 1971, the House of Representatives passed the amendment by a vote of 401-19, and the 26th Amendment was sent to the states for ratification the same day.

Just a little more than two months later, on July 1, 1971, the necessary three-fourths (38) of state legislatures had ratified the 26th Amendment.

On July 5, 1971, President Nixon, in front of 500 newly eligible young voters, signed the 26th Amendment into law. “The reason I believe that your generation, the 11 million new voters, will do so much for America at home is that you will infuse into this nation some idealism, some courage, some stamina, some high moral purpose, that this country always needs,” President Nixon declared.

Effect of the 26th Amendment

Despite the overwhelming demand and support for the 26th Amendment at the time, its post-adoption effect on voting trends has been mixed.

Many political experts expected the newly-franchised young voters to help Democratic challenger George McGovern — a staunch opponent of the Vietnam War — defeat President Nixon in the 1972 election.

However, Nixon was overwhelmingly reelected, winning 49 states. In the end, McGovern, from North Dakota, won only the state of Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

After a record high turnout of 55.4% in the 1972 election, the youth vote steadily declined, to drop to a low of 36% in the 1988 presidential election won by Republican George H.
W. Bush.
  Despite a slight increase in the 1992 election of Democrat Bill Clinton, the voter turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds continued to lag far behind that of older voters.

Growing fears that young Americans were wasting their hard fought right for the opportunity to enact change were calmed somewhat when the 2008 presidential election of Democrat Barack Obama, saw a turnout of some 49% of 18- to 24-year-olds, the second highest in history.

In the 2016 election of Republican Donald Trump, the youth vote declined again as the U.S. Census Bureau reported a turnout of 46% among 18- to 29-year-olds. 

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Longley, Robert. "The 26th Amendment: Voting Rights for 18-Year Olds." ThoughtCo, Mar. 26, 2018, thoughtco.com/the-26th-amendment-4157809. Longley, Robert. (2018, March 26). The 26th Amendment: Voting Rights for 18-Year Olds. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-26th-amendment-4157809 Longley, Robert. "The 26th Amendment: Voting Rights for 18-Year Olds." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-26th-amendment-4157809 (accessed April 21, 2018).