What can young people do?
In 1971 the U.S. ratified the 26th Amendment to the Constitution that lowered the voting age to 18, but how did we get there?
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Jennings Randolph first introduced a bill to lower the voting age in 1942. “[Young people] possess a great social conscience, are perplexed by the injustices in the world, and are anxious to rectify those ills.”
During World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt lowered the military draft age to 18 – meaning that some Americans could serve in the military but not be able to vote.
President Eisenhower endorsed the idea in his 1954 State of the Union address. “For years our citizens between the ages of 18 and 21 have, in time of peril, been summoned to fight for America.”
In the mid-to late-1960s, the United States ramped up its engagement in Vietnam. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers were drafted and sent off to war, many of whom were too young to vote.
25,000 Americans under the age of 20 died in Vietnam, popularizing the phrase “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote.”
Young Americans started a grassroots movement around the country to pressure states into reducing the voting age, but only four states had done so, and only two of those reduced it to 18.
Young Americans were heavily involved in the social and political movements of the 1960s. They also supported insurgent political candidates who advocated for change.
The 1960s was a time of extreme social and political upheaval in the United States, and young Americans made sure to exercise their rights of protest to the fullest. Youth were heavily involved in the social movements of that era, starting in the first half of the decade with the Civil Rights movement and the voting rights movement that followed.
Young Americans lent their voices and pressured the government to pass both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In the second half of the decade, the Vietnam War dominated the political landscape for youth in America. Hundreds of thousands of youth were sent off to fight and die in a war many didn’t believe in. The median age of someone killed in the Vietnam War was 23 years old. Students took to the streets to protest against the war and the draft. They burned their draft cards or dodged the draft entirely.
In the midst of the Vietnam protests, students looked to leaders advocating change in American policy, both on the war and on social issues back home. In 1968, two candidates garnered the majority of youth support, Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy.
In response to widespread youth activism, Congress undertook a serious effort to lower the voting age. This effort was spear-headed in part by Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA).
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“A society that imposes the extraordinary burden of war and death on its youth should also grant the benefit of full citizen-ship and representation, especially in sensitive and basic areas like the right to vote.” - Ted Kennedy
In 1970, Congress amended the Voting Rights Act of 1965, extending suffrage to everyone in the US between the ages of 18-20.
Later that year, however, the Supreme Court determined the newly passed law partially unconstitutional. They ruled it only allowed 18-20 year olds to vote in federal elections, but not state and local ones.
Oregon v. Mitchell was the case in which the Supreme Court decided the amendment to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was partially unconstitutional.
In a 5-4 decision, Justice Hugo Black opined for the majority, stating that Congress had the power to lower the voting age in federal elections. However, Justice Black also stated that lowering the voting age for state and local elections was beyond congressional purview.
Because of this ruling, Congress needed to pass a constitutional amendment in order to lower the voting age for all elections.
After the court decision, Congress overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment to lower the age nationwide for all elections. It was ratified after 101 days, the shortest ratification in history!
Bipartisanpolicy.org published a 45 year retrospective on the 26th amendment in 2016.
Senator Ted Kennedy was a key proponent of lowering the voting age, and you can read his testimony to Congress here.
Oyez is an online database at Illinois Institute of Technology's Chicago-Kent College of Law that is dedicated to compiling audio recordings of all Supreme Court oral arguments since 1955. Furthermore, it offers breakdowns and analyses of various rulings the court has issued over the years. Here is their analysis of Oregon v. Mitchell.
PBS published a brief overview of the anti-Vietnam War movement and the backlash to the movement.
The International Center on Nonviolent Conflict has a more in-depth summary of the anti-war movement.
The Smithsonian’s African American History Museum is conducting an oral history project called the Civil Rights History Project. It has countless interviews of people that made contributions to the Civil Rights movement.
For further reading about the protests and campaigns of the era, American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division by Michael A. Cohen is a comprehensive read of one of the most significant years in American history, and shows part of how young people strove to make changes in American society.