1971: 18-Year-olds get the vote: with the Vietnam war as a backdrop, the 26th Amendment to the Constitution towered the voting age from 21
The explosive youth movement of the 1960s was born in the civil rights era and blossomed into a full-blown counterculture on college campuses and at music festivals like Woodstock in 1969. Young people believed they had a lot to say in the 1960s, but the voting age in those days was 21, and so one place they could not speak out was in the voting booth.
That changed 35 years ago this summer with the ratification of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18. There were many forces behind the change, but it’s clear that the unpopular war in Vietnam helped make the case.
Between 1965 and 1973, millions of American soldiers–many of them under 21–were drafted or volunteered to fight in Vietnam. More than 50,000 died in what would turn out to be a failed effort to prevent a Communist takeover of the Southeast Asian country and its neighbors.
While “old enough to fight, old enough to vote” was one of the catch-phrases of the 1960s, the sentiment behind it had been expressed decades earlier during both World War II and the Korean War. But for many years there was opposition to lowering the voting age, including from The New York Times, which repeatedly argued against it. “The requirements for a good soldier and for a good voter are not the same,” said a 1967 Times editorial. “For the soldier, youthful enthusiasm and physical endurance are of primary importance; for the voter, maturity of judgment far outweighs other qualifications.”
But a growing youth movement started to chip away at that view. Young people had begun to assert themselves politically during the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, taking part in demonstrations against racial segregation and poverty. By mid-decade, America’s continued involvement in Vietnam proved increasingly unpopular on college campuses, where students marched, held sit-ins, and occupied school buildings to protest the war and challenge authority.
“Students are in rebellion around the country,” Fred P. Graham wrote in a column for The Times in 1968. “These energies might better be funneled into political participation.”
When the 26th Amendment was approved by the House of Representatives and Senate and sent to the state legislatures in March 1971, it rocketed into the Constitution at record speed: The required three quarters of the states ratified it in just 107 days.
Four days after Ohio provided the crucial 38th ratification vote, President Richard M. Nixon signed a document certifying the amendment at a White House ceremony, surrounded by teenage members of a choral group called Young Americans in Concert. Many of the group’s members, along with 11 million others, had just gained the right to vote.
The clean-cut young singers around Nixon, dressed in blue blazers and crisp white shirts, looked nothing like the hippies and activists who were marching against the war.
But even the young people selected to visit the White House in 1971 acknowledged that it was a difficult time in the nation’s history. A Times reporter asked David Van Dyke, a 17-year-old from New Jersey, whether he would cast his first vote for Nixon in the 1972 presidential election. “Depends on if we’re out of Vietnam,” he replied.
One of the reasons for the quick ratification of the 26th Amendment was that Congress had already approved lowering the voting age to 18 in 1970, partly in response to the Vietnam protests.
But the Supreme Court ruled later that year that the Congressional action applied only to federal elections, not to state elections. The 26th Amendment was meant to sort out the confusion and save the states the expense of having to run, in essence, two sets of elections, for younger and older voters.
Amending the Constitution, however, is much more complicated than passing legislation: The Founding Fathers simply didn’t want it to be that easy to make changes to their work. As spelled out in the Constitution, amendments must first be passed by two-thirds majorities of both the House and the Senate, and then sent to state legislatures for ratification. This cumbersome process explains why, in more than 225 years, the Constitution has been amended only 27 times.
1789 TO 1992
The previous record for the fastest ratification of an amendment was just over six months, in 1804, for the 12th Amendment, which provides for separate balloting for the president and the vice president. (Prior to that, the candidate who received the second-highest vote tally became vice president.) The amendment that took the longest to be ratified is the most recent one, the 27th, which bars pay raises for federal legislators from becoming effective until after the next general election: It was proposed in 1789, and adopted more than two centuries later, in 1992.
The 26th Amendment was the last of several amendments that expanded the right to vote (see timeline, p. 25). But it did not have the impact some had hoped for: Young people didn’t vote in great numbers in 1972.
Nor did those who went to the polls vote as a united group: Among 18-year-olds, the vote was split almost evenly between Nixon, a Republican, and Democrat George McGovern. Nixon won re-election in a landslide, though he resigned in 1974 following the Watergate scandals. (In the most recent presidential election, voters 25 and younger favored Democrat John Kerry over Republican George W. Bush, 56 percent to 43 percent.)
But turnout among young voters has consistently been weak (see chart), which means they have had a limited impact on the outcome of elections. “The fact is,” Richard L. Berke wrote in 1991 in an essay in The Times, “the vaunted youth vote never became the electoral force that some expected.”
In the 2004 election, groups like Rock the Vote, Declare Yourself, and New Voters Project worked hard to mobilize young voters.
“It is men and women my age who are fighting the war in Iraq and dying in it,” one student, Amelia Hershberger, wrote to The Times. “Students who vote can claim a voice in a system that ignores youth concerns.”
In the end, though, as columnist John Tierney wrote mockingly after the election, the results of these efforts were underwhelming.
“The unprecedented get-out-the-vote campaigns turned out so many young Americans,” he said, “that their share of the electorate went from 17 percent in 2000 to 17 percent in 2004.”
Who Gets to Vote in America?
It took two centuries before men and women of all races were able to vote in the United States. A look at the evolution of voting since America’s birth:
> SUFFRAGE FOR SOME
Only white men with property could vote in most states. New Jersey briefly allowed women with property to vote but rescinded the right in 1807.
> THE 15TH AMENDMENT
This post-Civil War amendment said that race or status as a former slave could not disqualify anyone from voting. But it wasn’t enforced throughout the U.S. until the 1960s.
> THE 19TH AMENDMENT
Passed in 1920 after a decades-long campaign by women’s suffrage proponents, it extended the vote to women in all states; in 1924, Congress gave American Indians the right to vote.
> CIVIL RIGHTS ERA
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned literacy tests and other tactics used in the South to keep blacks from voting. Poll taxes were abolished the previous year.
The Youth Vote Since 1972
Young people have depressed
overall turnout in presidential
elections for the last three decades.
Year Presidential Election 18-24 25 & Older All Voters
1972 Nixon/McGovern 52% 68% 55%
1976 Carter/Ford 44% 65% 54%
1980 Reagan/Carter/Anderson 43% 69% 53%
1984 Reagan/Mondale 44% 69% 53%
1988 Bush/Dukakis 40% 66% 50%
1992 Clinton/Bush/Perot 49% 71% 55%
1996 Clinton/Dole 36% 62% 49%
2000 Bush/Gore/Nader 36% 63% 51%
2004 Bush/Kerry 47% 66% 55%
SOURCES: FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION; CENSUS BUREAU; CENTER FOR
INFORMATION & RESEARCH ON CIVIC LEARNING & ENGAGEMENT
Setting 21 as the minimum age for voting and other legal obligations, like becoming a party to a contract, was a holdover from English common law. Historians say 21 was the age of majority in medieval England because it was thought that at age 21 men could assume the physical responsibilities of knighthood.
CRITICAL THINKING 1
* Direct students to the table on the youth vote on page 26. Note the differences in voter turnout between the 18-to-24 group and the 25 & Older group.
Ask students to suggest one or more reasons why they think such a relatively small proportion of young people vote. Can they think of reasons why people in the 25 & Older group apparently see more value in voting?
CRITICAL THINKING 2
* One way to raise the voting turnout of young people–and all citizens–might be to make voting mandatory. In several countries–Australia, Mexico, and some parts of Switzerland, for example–voting is compulsory.
Ask students to take sides on the issue of compulsory voting. What are some of the pros and cons of compulsory voting?
* Which election issues might prompt more teens to vote?
* Can you think of one or two reasons why the Founding Fathers made amending the Constitution a much more difficult process than passing ordinary legislation?
* Refer to the 1967 Times editorial, which argued that the skills needed to be a soldier and those needed to be a voter are very different. Have students write letters to the editor in which they explain why they agree or disagree with the Times editorial.
* The “father” of the 26th Amendment was Jennings Randolph, a U.S. Representative and later Senator from West Virginia, who introduced bills to give 18-year-olds the vote 11 times, starting in 1942.
* A proposed 28th Amendment would ban desecration of the flag.
1. One important factor in building support. for the 18-year-old vote was
a the end of segregation in public schools.
b the hundreds of thousands of young soldiers who were serving in the Vietnam War.
c opposition to the war in Vietnam by many of America’s most valued allies.
d Richard Nixon’s campaign for the presidency in 1968.
2. In 1970, Congress amended the Voting Rights Act, with a provision towering the voting age from 21 to 18. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that
a 18-year-olds were too young to vote.
b Congress did not have the constitutional authority to legislate on matters involving elections.
c the law applied only to those 18-year-olds who had graduated from high school.
d the law applied only to federal elections, and not to state elections.
3. Normally, passage of a constitutional amendment requires
a another review by the Supreme Court.
b a national referendum open to all citizens who are eligible to vote.
c the votes of a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress and ratification by three quarters of the state legislatures.
d a majority vote in both houses of Congress.
4. Briefly describe the youth movement in the United States in the 1960s.
5. In the early days of the American republic, the right to vote was mostly limited to
a people who could prove British ancestry.
b white males who owned property.
c people who were members of a recognized Protestant church.
d supporters of the Revolutionary War.
1. How would you explain the importance of voting to someone who came from a country where there was no tradition of allowing citizens to vote?
2. What do you think accounts for the fact that the Founding Fathers simultaneously invoked the principles of democracy while not granting the vote to women, men who didn’t own property, and blacks?
1. (b) the hudreds of thousands of young soldiers who were serving in the Vietnam War.
2. (d) the law applied only to federal elections and not to state elections.
3. (c) the votes of a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress and ratification by three quarters of the state legislatures.
4. They rebelled against authority and protested the Vietnam War. [Similar wording is acceptable.]
5. (b) white males who owned property.
Adam Liptak is national legal correspondent for The New York Times.
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