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 Twenty-Sixth Amendment: Empowering America’s Youth
Throughout our nation’s history the right to vote has remained a cornerstone of cherished civil liberties and democratic processes. This right, however, was granted to select members of the populace until a century and a half ago. The end of the Civil War brought about 3 “Reconstruction Amendments” aimed to bring constitutionally granted “blessings of liberty” to the black male populace – the 3rd of these, the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, granted voting rights regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Half a century later, women were also granted the right to vote, after various organizations staged a protracted series of processions and protests. Several countries, such as Sweden, Finland (then known as the Grand Duchy (Dutch-ee)), Britain and Australia, had already forged ground in this area at the end of the 19th century. The resulting 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, which prohibited state and federal sex-based voting restrictions. Additional suffrage privileges were granted with ratification of the 24th Amendment in 1964 – which guaranteed that voting rights of citizens
“shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.”
Age was the next obstacle to overcome.
The Constitution allowed states to dictate voting qualifications, subject to restrictions incorporated into Amendments. One of these Amendments, the 14th, mandated an age 21 minimum for male suffrage, with the caveat of withholding any state’s representation in Congress should this right be denied. With the onset of World War II, many young men and women under age 21 entered military service, sparking discussions about reducing the voting age to 18. It seemed ironic that one could be called up for military service at 18 and denied the right to vote for the country one was entrusted to defend. So, in 1942, four Congressmen introduced resolutions to reduce the age to 18. Over 150 proposals were initiated, some setting the age to 19. In the early 1950s, Senate debated one of “18” resolutions, but it failed by a vote of 34 to 24. By the late 1960s, the Vietnam War was rapidly escalating and thousands of young Americans enlisted, or, were drafted for active duty overseas. As of 1968, 25% of the troops were under age 21 and made up an even higher percentage of casualties. ‘Old enough to fight, old enough to vote’ became a mantra for the burgeoning Baby Boom generation.
The resolutions for lowering the voting age began to gain momentum once again. Congress held hearings on the subject between 1968 and 1970. These hearings touched on the link between military service and voting, but primarily focused on the increased educational levels of modern youth. Their discussions also focused on the ever-increasing responsibilities of the 18-21 year old demographic: attending college, driving automobiles, drinking alcohol (in subsequent years, states raised this age to 21), holding jobs, starting families, being tried as adults in court. Concurrently, in a narrow 5-4 vote, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Oregon v. Mitchell (1970) that 18 year olds could vote in federal elections, but not in those held at the state, or, local levels.
States now were tasked with evaluating their suffrage-age laws, and sixteen states did just that in 1970. Six states lowered the age and ten remained unswayed. Other states began to weigh administrative and cost advantages in matching the new federal framework. Congress then added a provision to the Voting Rights Act in 1970 setting the minimum voting age to 18 for both national and state elections, arguing it had broad power to protect voting rights under Section 5 of the 14th Amendment. With that, Congress accelerated its commitment to incorporate the youth suffrage movement within the framework of the Constitution. Congress passed the 26th Amendment March 23, 1971. In the fastest ratification process on record (107 days), three fourths of the states ratified this landmark proposal July 1, 1971.
Note: Amendment 14, section 2, of the Constitution was modified by section 1 of the 26th amendment.
Ms. Janice R. Brenman is a former prosecutor now in private practice in Los Angeles. She has commented in major legal publications on the subject of legal reform and celebrity influence on the legal system. She has also appeared in medical malpractice, products liability and complex civil litigation, and is well versed in all forms of discovery. From 1999 to 2000, Ms. Brenman was a City Prosecutor and Community Preservationist. She clerked for the Honorable Rupert J. Groh(Grow), Jr., of the United States District Court for the Central District of California. Ms. Brenman also worked researching, writing and editing under a Nobel Prize winning laureate.
June 11, 2012