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.
The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
On March 23, 1971 Congress proposed the Amendment to lower the voting age from 21 to 18. It was ratified by the states in 98 days, and became part of our constitution on July 1, 1971,[i] becoming the quickest amendment ever to be ratified. But why?
Well, two things happened that led to this amendment. The first was the political activism of the 1960’s where first the civil rights, and then the anti-Vietnam war movements convinced the politicians of a need for change, and then there was, as their usually is, some judicial challenge that forces a change.
The idea of lowering the legal age from 21 to 18 can be traced back to the second world war. It was supported by President Eisenhower, but changes to the status quo, especially if there is no pressing need, oft times come slow. In 1963, a Presidential commission recommended the idea to President Johnson, but it was not until 1970 when things came to a head.
In that year, Senator Ted Kennedy, (D-MA) proposed amending the 1965 Voting Rights Act to lower the minimum age for all elections to 18. President Nixon signed the legislation, but voiced concern over the constitutionality of the provision, and directed his Attorney General to cooperate on expediting a court case to determine its legitimacy.[ii]
In Oregon vs Mitchell (1970), the Supreme Court of the United States found the Congress could establish a voting age for the national elections, but could not force the states to lower it for state and local elections. At the time, only four states had 18 as their legal age to vote. Faced with the possibility they would have to maintain two sets of voter registrations, one for federal and one for state, the multitude of states quickly agreed to the amendment and so it came to be.
I was 20 when the amendment passed, so it did minimally affect me, but the thing that stands out in my memory was the nature of the disagreements on this issue. I don’t recall rancor or animosity, neither side seemed to have an issue with lowering the age, it was only a debate on how to do it within the framework of our principle guiding document, the U.S. Constitution.How different we see the political debates today, when every issue is crouched as if it were a great moral debate and challenge to our society. The 26th Amendment should stand as a testament on how fast we can do something, if personality politics are put aside in the political debate, but then again, we didn’t have the media fanning the flames of political differences quite as hard as they do now.