The Twenty-Sixth Amendment lowered the legal voting age in the United States from 21 to 18. Specifically, the amendment prohibits the states and federal government from denying citizens who are at least 18 the right to vote “on account of age.” The controversial debate on lowering the national voting age first began during World War II when Congress lowered the draft age to 18, and the slogan of “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote” was born. In 1942, West Virginia Democrat Jennings Randolph introduced the first proposal to lower the voting age and continued to introduce similar legislation over the next decade, which was endorsed by Presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, and Nixon, despite making little headway in Congress.
Several states, however, such as Georgia, chose to embrace this idea and lower their voting age to 18. Opponents of lowering the voting age questioned the maturity and responsibility of 18 year-olds. It wasn’t until decades later, after the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War protests, that Congress finally passed the Voting Rights Acts Amendments of 1970. The 1970 act lowered the voting age to 18 in order to appease the youth of America. After the Supreme Court ruled in 1970 that Congress only had the right to regulate the minimum age in federal elections, Congress passed the Twenty-Sixth Amendment on March 23, 1971 to ensure 18 to 20 year-olds could vote on local, state, and federal levels. The states quickly ratified the amendment and it was signed into law by President Nixon 100 days later on July 1, 1971.
Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.
Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Quite simply, the Twenty-Sixth Amendment prohibits states from denying people who are at least 18 years old the right to vote. The amendment also allows Congress to enforce this by passing “appropriate legislation.”
Scholars have debated the true strength of Congress’s authority to enact legislation to prevent discrimination based on voters’ age. Some argue that it only gives Congress the ability to override state laws that explicitly intend to restrict the right to vote on account of age. On the other hand, others argue that it also allows Congress to override seemingly neutral state laws that disproportionately affect the voting rights of a certain age group. This is particularly important because many state residency requirements appear to be neutral but actually make it difficult for college students to vote.
Major Court Cases
Oregon v. Mitchell, a 1970 Supreme Court Case, held that the United States Congress could set voting age requirements for federal elections but not for local or state elections. This Court case came in response to Congress passing the Voting Rights Acts Amendments of 1970, requiring all states to allow citizens between the ages of 18 and 21 to vote in all elections. Oregon, Idaho, Texas, and Arizona challenged the Act as an infringement on states’ rights to manage voting. However, the Court’s ruling that the federal government could not mandate youth suffrage in state and local elections became moot after the ratification of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment.
In 2014, Florida’s Secretary of State banned the placement of early voting sites on college campuses, according to an interpretation of Florida’s early voting statute. In 2018, League of Women Voters of Florida v. Lee found that this interpretation violated the First, 14th, and 26th Amendments. The district court issued a preliminary injunction that prohibited the Secretary of State from implementing the Early Voting Statute in any way prohibiting or discouraging the use of buildings on or related to colleges and universities as early voting sites.
Modern controversy surrounding the Twenty-Sixth Amendment revolves around the youth vote being suppressed. The participation rate of young voters has fallen since the amendment was first passed, and many believe that this stems from the hurdles these voters face with residency requirements, strict voter ID laws, and inaccessible polling places.
The Twenty-Sixth Amendment is constantly threatened and has been used to challenge restrictive voting practices in states that specifically target the youth. For example, New Hampshire and Wisconsin Republicans have restricted student voting by excluding student IDs from being counted as valid voter IDs, which makes it difficult for out-of-state students to establish residency for voter registration. In addition, despite the fact that the Supreme Court struck down Florida’s ban on placing early-voting sites on college campuses, New York and other state lawmakers have also been fighting to keep polling locations off of college campuses.
The Twenty-Sixth amendment provides citizens who are at least 18 the right to vote. Without it, people ages 18 to 20 would continue to fulfill their duties as citizens, including serving in the Armed Forces and paying taxes, without having a voice in who represents them and their values in the U.S. government. Many youth activists actually think the voting age should be lowered to 16 because 16 and 17 year-olds are ready to vote and have a stake in the game. The voices of young people are essential because those who are going to inherit the future should have a say in how it is shaped. It is ultimately young people who are leading the movements for racial justice and equality, climate action, gun violence prevention, and immigration reform. It is up to the youth to build a better future, and they cannot do that without voting rights.