The 26th Amendment and Youth Vote: An Explainer
What is the 26th Amendment?
Ratified 50 years ago, on July 1, 1971, the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution extended the right to vote to all Americans aged 18 and older by lowering the federal voting age from 21. Section 1 of the 26th Amendment reads as follows:
The right of citizens of the United States, who are 18 years of age or older, to vote, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age.
What led to the passage of the 26th Amendment?
In 1942, in the midst of World War II, Congress lowered the minimum age to be drafted into the U.S. Military to 18 from 21. This wartime change launched a decades-long debate over lowering the voting age in the United States, as young men were being drafted to fight for their country while simultaneously being denied the right to vote. From this discrepancy, the slogan “old enough to fight, old enough to vote” was born, and it became a rallying cry for a youth voting rights movement, which was powered by the activism of young people and their allies.
With no progress at the federal level, the youth voting rights movement did gain ground in some states, and in 1943 Georgia became the first state to lower the voting age to 18 in state and local elections. Granted, the state also implemented Jim Crow laws so only white youth could exercise their freedom to vote.
Over a decade later, the movement to lower the voting age gained momentum when President Dwight D. Eisenhower used his 1954 State of the Union address to call upon Congress to “propose to the States a constitutional amendment permitting citizens to vote when they reach the age of 18”. Widespread public support for lowering the voting age followed in the 1960s when the Vietnam War recentered the youth voting rights movement on its original “old enough to fight, old enough to vote” slogan.
Then, in 1970, Congress voted to add an amendment to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to lower the voting age to 18 in federal, state, and local elections nationwide. After being signed into law by President Richard Nixon, the states of Arizona, Idaho, Oregon, and Texas sued the federal government. In Oregon v. Mitchell. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5–4 decision that Congress only had the power to set the minimum voting age in federal elections — but not in elections at the state or local level. The Court held that it was unconstitutional for Congress to lower the voting age in state and local elections, and thus that provision was struck down.
Following this defeat, proponents took to amending the U.S. Constitution to lower the voting age quickly unfolded. Because state and local law cannot violate the Constitution, amending the Constitution was the only way to lower the voting age to 18 at the Federal level following the Supreme Court decision. Without the 26th Amendment, it would have been left up to each state to individually decide to lower the voting age for their state’s elections.
The U.S. Senate voted unanimously to pass the proposed amendment, followed by an overwhelming House vote in favor. In just over two months, the requisite three-quarters of state legislatures — or 38 states — ratified the 26th Amendment, and it officially went into effect on July 1, 1971.
How has the 26th Amendment impacted young Americans?
Five decades after the ratification of the 26th Amendment, the United States has experienced unprecedented levels of youth voter turnout in recent elections. In the 2018 midterm elections, young people turned out to vote at the highest levels since the ratification of the 26th Amendment. And, youth voter turnout in 2020 reached “one of the highest youth participation rates in decades”.
Similarly, just as the passage of the 26th Amendment was led by a movement of youth activists, the recent youth vote is often pointed to as a result of increasing youth activism around a host of issues that disproportionately impact young people. In the leadup to the 2020 federal election, racism and police brutality dominated youth-led activism, and young people have also built powerful advocacy movements around issues including climate change and gun violence.
In a recent post-election survey, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) found that “more than three-quarters of young people believe that they have the power and responsibility to change the country and that this work goes beyond elections”. Such a high level of youth political participation — which only begins with electoral politics — would not be possible without the important baseline of voting rights granted by the 26th Amendment.
Why does the 26th Amendment matter today?
Despite recent record levels of youth engagement, participation among young people still lags behind older voters. That is because, despite passing the 26th Amendment, no changes were made to prepare 18-year-olds to participate in democracy as soon as they became eligible. Young voters are new voters and even though they are enthusiastic about participating they are going through the process for the first time.
And, that process is increasingly designed to keep them out with new barriers to voting. Policies like strict voter ID laws are a more recent form of voter suppression that targets young voters and only started gaining traction around 2010. Limitations on who can vote early or by mail, voter suppression efforts seek to maintain the status quo by restricting who can participate in the electoral process. In 2021 alone, more than 389 bills in 48 states — including high-profile bills in Florida, Georgia, Texas, and elsewhere — have been introduced at the state level to restrict Americans’ freedom to vote by putting up barriers to silence our voices based on what we look like or where we live. Bills in New Hampshire and Montana specifically target young people where they saw significant jumps in youth voter turnout.
As we celebrate this important anniversary of the expansion of voting rights to young people in America, we must continue to protect the rights of young voters as they face a new wave of barriers to casting their vote.
Is there widespread support for the Freedom to Vote?
The swift passage and ratification of the 26th Amendment is only one example of when the expansion or protection of voting rights in the United States had near-unanimous bipartisan support. There is no reason that the protection of voting rights today should not have similar broad support as it did with the 26th Amendment.
Two critical pieces of legislation — the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — have passed the U.S. House of Representatives and are being held up in the Senate. Together, these bills would implement comprehensive reforms, including establishing national standards for registering and voting; reducing the power of big money and special interests in our democracy, and restoring the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The 26th Amendment has empowered decades of young Americans to speak loud and clear about what they want for our country. The stakes right now are high, but — just as it did with the ratification of the 26th Amendment — democracy will win.
What can you do to support the Freedom to Vote?
The right to vote, particularly for the young people that the 26th Amendment extended voting right to, is under attack today. For more information on what you can do to advance the protection of voting rights in America, check out Rock the Vote’s Freedom to Vote campaign. We make it easy to call, email, and tweet your Senators to protect the Freedom to Vote.