The Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified in 1971, lowered the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen years of age. Section One of the Amendment states "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." At the time the amendment was ratified, significant popular support existed for lowering the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen years of age. However, the process of achieving this modification was not without conflict.
Popular discussion of lowering the voting age from twenty-one years of age to eighteen years of age first appeared in 1942 after Congress amended the Selective Service and Training Act to reflect a draft age of eighteen. From this year forward, on an annual basis, various federal legislators offered proposals to lower the voting age. In addition Presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, and Nixon each advocated lowering the voting age to eighteen. However the voting age remained at twenty-one until 1971. Wendell W. Cultice argues that the pervasive sense of crisis that was present during 1960s and 1970s caused young Americans, who felt unsupported by the political system, to organize and fight for modification of the voting age. The Vietnam War was especially significant in leading young Americans to seek the right to vote. Youth rallied around the slogan "old enough to fight, old enough to vote." Following the 1969 implementation of a lottery-style military draft, popular and political support for lowering the voting age increased.
As popular support grew for lowering the voting age to eighteen, Congress determined that the fastest way to extend the vote to eighteen-year olds would be through an amendment to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. However, many were concerned about whether this would violate the U.S. Constitution. Despite these concerns, President Nixon signed the 1970 Voting Rights Act, which contained a provision lowering the voting age to eighteen years of age, into law on June 22, 1970.
The United States Supreme Court addressed the constitutionality of the act in the 1970 case Oregon v. Mitchell. The Court held that although the act could properly lower the voting age for federal elections, the act could not require states to lower the voting age for local elections. As a result of this decision, states would have been faced with the unappealing and costly burden of maintaining separate voting procedures for federal and local elections. In order to eliminate this problem, a constitutional amendment was proposed on January 25, 1971. It was approved by the Senate on March 10, 1971, and by the House on March 23, 1971. It was then ratified by the required thirty-eight states in the fastest ratification process in U.S. history.
The decision to lower the voting age to eighteen was significant for several reasons. First, the decision indicated the belief that eighteen-year olds possessed the requisite emotional and mental maturity to participate in the electoral process. Additionally, passage of the amendment indicated an acceptance of the argument that if eighteen-year olds were old enough to fight in war and were old enough to be held to adult standards for criminal punishment, they should also be considered old enough to cast a vote. Finally, passage of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment caused the age of majority (the age at which one is considered a legal adult) to be lowered to eighteen for many other purposes.
Briffault, Richard. 2002. "Review of The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, by Alexander Keyssar." Michigan Law Review 100 (May): 1506.
Cultice, Wendell W. 1992. Youth's Battle for the Ballot: A History of Voting Age in America. New York: Greenwood Press.
Keyssar, Alexander. 2000. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. New York: Basic Books.
Rogers, Donald W., ed. 1992. Voting and the Spirit of American Democracy: Essays on the History of Voting and Voting Rights in America. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press.
Scott, Elizabeth S. 2000. "The Legal Construction of Adolescence." Hofstra Law Review 29 (winter): 547.
Teitelbaum, Lee E. 1999. "Children's Rights and the Problem of Equal Respect." Hofstra Law Review 27 (summer): 799.
AMY L. ELSON