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 drafted 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.
Democratic congressman Jennings Randolph introduced federal legislation to lower the voting age in 1942. “They possess a great social conscience, are perplexed by the injustices in the world, and are anxious to rectify those ills.”
PRESIDENTIAL & CONGRESSIONAL SUPPORT FOR THE 26TH AMENDMENT
President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared in 1954: “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, youth voting rights activists held demonstrations to draw lawmakers’ attention to the hypocrisy of drafting young people who lacked the right to vote. In 1970, Congress passed a bill extending and amending the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They included a provision that lowered the voting age to 18 in federal, state, and local elections. President Nixon believed the provision was unconstitutional. “Although I strongly favor the 18-year-old vote, I believe 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 reviewed the constitutionality of the provision. The majority decision held that Congress did not have the right to regulate the minimum age in state and local elections, but only in federal elections.
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.
PASSAGE, RATIFICATION AND EFFECTS OF THE 26TH AMENDMENT
In 1971, the Congress voted in favor of a proposed Constitutional amendment that would set a uniform national voting age of 18 in all elections. In just over two months–the shortest period of time for any amendment in U.S. history–the necessary three-fourths of state legislatures ratified the 26th Amendment, and President Nixon signed it into law that July.
The legacy of the 26th Amendment has been a mixed one: After a 55.4 percent turnout in 1972, youth turnout steadily declined, reaching 36 percent in the 1988 presidential election. The 2008 presidential election of Barack Obama saw a voter turnout of about 49 percent of 18- to 24 year-olds, the second highest in history.
Source: The 26th Amendment
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