Civics For Change: The 26th Amendment
In the history of American democracy, the 26th Amendment stands as a testament to the power of youth voices and the pursuit of equal voting rights. Ratified in 1971, this landmark amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, expanding the electoral franchise to millions of young adults. While this constitutional victory marked a significant step forward, it did not eliminate all the barriers young voters face in exercising their democratic rights. In this blog post, we’ll discuss the history of the 26th Amendment, examine the current challenges that persist for young voters, and offer a remedy to the unfulfilled promise of the 26th Amendment.
During World War II, the picture of youth voting was incomplete. In 1942, Congress lowered the draft age from 21 to 18, but the law still required citizens to be 21 years old in order to vote. This change sparked a decades-long debate over lowering the voting age to 18, and gave way to the slogan “old enough to fight, old enough to vote.”
While progress to lower the voting age was slow at the federal level, the youth voting rights movement gained momentum in some states. Georgia became the first state to lower the voting age to 18 for state and local elections in 1943, but the state also implemented Jim Crow laws so only white youth could exercise their right to vote. More than ten years later, the movement grew in response to President Eisenhower proposing adding a constitutional amendment to lower the voting age to 18 in his 1954 State of the Union Address.
In the 1960s, the youth voting rights movement took the spotlight again in response to the Vietnam War, when “old enough to fight, old enough to vote” came back into the national conversation. Five years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, Congress added an amendment to the Constitution, lowering the voting age to 18 for local, state, and federal elections. Following President Nixon signing the amendment into law, Arizona, Idaho, Oregon, and Texas sued the federal government.
In the landmark Supreme Court Case Oregon v. Mitchell, the Court ruled that Congress could only set the minimum voting age in federal elections, not state or local elections, siding with the states that sued. With local and state laws bound by constitutional limitations, the only viable path to lowering the voting age was through a Constitutional amendment. As a result, the Senate unanimously approved the proposed amendment in response to the Oregon v. Mitchell decision, a move that was also endorsed by the House of Representatives.
The Twenty-Sixth Amendment was ratified in 1971 with overwhelmingly bipartisan support and both lowered the voting age to 18 and outlaws age discrimination in voting. The required 38 states ratified the bill in only four months, faster than any amendment in our history. However, many young people and students at colleges and universities nationwide still face significant obstacles to the ballot box, leaving the promises of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment unfulfilled.
There are numerous barriers in place for young people voting, including high rates of provisional ballot rejections, lack of accessible polling places, and restrictive residency and voter ID requirements, to name a few. We must work to ensure that young voters can fully participate in our democracy. The Youth Voting Rights Act (YVRA), a proposed piece of legislation, seeks to address the current challenges faced by young voters. This comprehensive act aims to expand access to the ballot, enhance civic education programs, and promote engagement among young citizens. Yael Bromberg, Esq., a constitutional rights attorney and one of the architects of the YVRA had this to say about this promising piece of legislation: “Thanks to the leadership of Senator Warren and Congresswoman Williams, the Youth Voting Rights Act offers a comprehensive remedy to fulfilling the promise of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment and protecting a constitutionally protected class of voters.”
The promise of the Youth Voting Rights Act offers hope and a path forward to ensure that every young American can exercise their right to vote freely and without hindrance. By supporting legislation like the Youth Voting Rights Act, we can fulfill the promise of the 26th Amendment, and honor the hard-fought battles of the past while forging a more equitable and inclusive future for our democracy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mia Matthews is the Program and Communications Manager at The Andrew Goodman Foundation. In her position, she works with student leaders and in communications and storytelling surrounding their work. She currently lives in Boston, Massachusetts.