The long debate over lowering the voting age in America from 21 to 18 began during World War II and intensified during the Vietnam War, when young men denied the right to vote were being conscripted to fight for their country. In the 1970 case Oregon v. Mitchell, a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress had the right to regulate the minimum age in federal elections, but not at the state and local level. Amid increasing support for a Constitutional amendment, Congress passed the 26th Amendment in March 1971; the states promptly ratified it, and President Richard M. Nixon signed it into law that July.
The 26th Amendment: “Old Enough to Fight, Old Enough to Vote”
During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt lowered the minimum age for the military draft age to 18, at a time when the minimum voting age (as determined by the individual states) had historically been 21. “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote” became a common slogan for a youth voting rights movement, and in 1943 Georgia became the first state to lower its voting age in state and local elections from 21 to 18.
Jennings Randolph, then a Democratic congressman from West Virginia, introduced federal legislation to lower the voting age in 1942; it was the first of 11 times that Randolph, who was later elected to the Senate, would introduce such a bill in Congress. The driving force behind Randolph’s efforts was his faith in America’s youth, of whom he believed: “They possess a great social conscience, are perplexed by the injustices in the world and are anxious to rectify those ills.”
Presidential & Congression Support for the 26th Amendment
Dwight D. Eisenhower, who led the U.S. armed forces to victory in Europe in 1945, later became the first president to publicly voice his support for a constitutional amendment lowering the minimum voting age. In his 1954 State of the Union address, Eisenhower declared: “For years our citizens between the ages of 18 and 21 have, in time of peril, been summoned to fight for America. They should participate in the political process that produces this fateful summons.”
In the late 1960s, with the United States embroiled in a long, costly war in Vietnam, youth voting rights activists held marches and demonstrations to draw lawmakers’ attention to the hypocrisy of drafting young men who lacked the right to vote. In 1969, no fewer than 60 resolutions were introduced in Congress to lower the minimum voting age, but none resulted in any action. The following year, when Congress passed a bill extending and amending the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it contained a provision that lowered the voting age to 18 in federal, state and local elections. Though he signed the bill into law, President Richard M. Nixon issued a public statement declaring that he believed the provision to be unconstitutional. “Although I strongly favor the 18-year-old vote,” Nixon continued, “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 Decision on the 26th Amendment
In the 1970 case Oregon v. Mitchell, the U.S. Supreme Court was tasked with reviewing the constitutionality of the provision. Justice Hugo Black wrote the majority decision in the case, which held that Congress did not have the right to regulate the minimum age in State and local elections, but only in federal elections. The issue left the Court seriously divided: Four justices, not including Black, believed Congress did have the right in state and local elections, while four others (again, not including Black) believed that Congress lacked the right even for federal elections, and that under the Constitution only the states have the right to set voter qualifications.
Under this verdict, 18- to 20-year-olds would be eligible to vote for president and vice president, but not for state officials up for election at the same time. Dissatisfaction with this situation–as well as public reaction to the protests of large numbers of young men and women facing conscription, but deprived of the right to vote–built support among many states for a Constitutional amendment that would set a uniform national voting age of 18 in all elections.
Passage, Ratification and Effects of the 26th Amendment
On March 10, 1971, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously in favor of the proposed amendment. After an overwhelming House vote in favor on March 23, the 26th Amendment went to the states for ratification. In just over two months–the shortest period of time for any amendment in U.S. history–the necessary three-fourths of state legislatures (or 38 states) ratified the 26th Amendment, and President Nixon signed it into law that July. At a White House ceremony attended by 500 newly eligible voters, Nixon declared: “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.”
Though newly minted young voters were expected to choose Democratic challenger George McGovern, an opponent of the Vietnam War, Nixon was reelected by an overwhelming margin–winning 49 states–in 1972. Over the next decades, the legacy of the 26th Amendment was a mixed one: After a 55.4 percent turnout in 1972, youth turnout steadily declined, reaching 36 percent in the 1988 presidential election. Though the 1992 election of Bill Clinton saw a slight rebound, voting rates of 18- to 24-year-olds remained well behind the turnout of older voters, and many lamented that America’s young people were squandering their opportunities to enact change. The 2008 presidential election of Barack Obama saw a voter turnout of some 49 percent of 18- to 24 year-olds, the second highest in history.