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The Amendments Series: Can 18 Year Olds Vote?

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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.

The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

The Twenty-Sixth Amendment

As I’ve been working my way through the amendments that have been introduced and ratified throughout American history, it’s been fascinating to see the different political and social environments that made such amendments prime for ratification. Had any of these amendments been introduced at a different time in American history, they may not have ever been ratified.

Having the correct Zeitgeist is truly the key to successful political change, especially change as significant and permanent as a constitutional amendment.

What was the political environment at the time of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment’s passage?

The Vietnam Conflict.

Historical Context

The Twenty-Sixth Amendment was nothing incredibly new. It the final amendment in a slew of “voting rights” amendments that Congress and the states ratified over the course of a century.

Remember, for most of American history, states dealt with the details surrounding elections. The Fourteenth Amendment shifted some of this power to the federal government by prohibiting state election laws that would prevent any man from voting simply because of the color of skin. In this amendment, age is mentioned. Specifically, the amendment says that states cannot write laws that would prevent, “male inhabitants of [each] state, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States” from voting in any, federal-state-local, election.

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Aside from that mention of age, voter eligibility age was left to the states to determine. If a state wanted their citizens to be able to vote at a younger age than 21, they could legislate accordingly, and some did. However, by the time the Vietnam Conflict started, most states had established the voting age at 21, while at the same time sending young men–a vast portion of them ages 18-20–to fight, and die in the conflict.

These seeming contradictory laws began to stir a public outcry and apply pressure on Congress (this wasn’t the first time either, the potential for change really started during WWII). How could the government require citizens, ages 18-20, to fight and die for their country while at the same time withholding from them the ability to vote? So, Congress passed a law called The Voting Rights Act, which lowered the voting age nationally to 18 for all elections–federal, state and local.

The Supreme Court, in the same year, 1970, in the Oregon v. Mitchell case, struck down this “voting rights” law and maintained that Congress had overstepped its Constitutional boundaries and could only set the voting age to 18 for federal elections.

Congress responded quickly then and proposed the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, which would change the Constitution itself. Congress introduced the amendment in 1970, approved it, and sent it to the states in the year. Four months later, in March of 1971, the 38 states needed to ratify had been met, making this amendment the fastest ratification period for any amendment in American history.

Ratifying a Constitutional Amendment is one of the more powerful and brilliant ways Congress can circumvent the Court, should they so choose.

Benson and Morely of the Constitution Center explained Congress’s rationale this way:

"The Senate Report accompanying the Twenty-Sixth Amendment explained that it [The 26th Amendment] was proposed for three main reasons. First, 'younger citizens are fully mature enough to vote.'  Most people between 18 and 21 had completed high school, and many had received at least some higher education. Second, 18-year-olds 'bear all or most of an adult’s responsibilities.' This consideration assumed special importance since over half the American servicemen killed in Vietnam were between 18 and 20. Third, younger voters should be given the chance 'to influence our society in a peaceful and constructive manner.' Excluding 18-year-olds from the political process contributed to violent protests." 


Since the passage of this amendment, there’s been relatively little controversy surrounding it–unlike its close cousin the 14th Amendment–however, there have been some issues regarding the legality of allowing college students to register to vote in their university’s district vs their “home” district. For the most part, young adults attending college have to show an intention to live long term in their university’s district or they are legally required to vote in their “home” district–where they are their parents permanently reside. Some argue that these type of election laws unfairly discriminate against people aged 18-20 and thus violate the 26th Amendment (since it’s difficult to vote in one’s home district if the student can’t manage to leave campus during the Fall). However, the courts have, for the most part, refrained from using the 26th Amendment as justification for nullifying most of these eligibility requirements.

Theoretically speaking, one’s vote in an election is likely more effective and well-informed in the individual has a personal stake in the specific district or state in which he or she is residing. If a college student votes in an election for a a candidate to fill a position they will never personally be affected by–since they reside on campus temporarily and will be moving back to their home state or district in a short time–one could also argue that this individual has no stake or “right” to decide who will end up representing the people who reside in that district or state permanently.

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There’s an argument for both sides of the debate, but the point of this article is to merely shine a light on yet another profound addition to our Constitution. Funny how the zeitgeist truly does move and sway and change the very job description of government itself.

The Liberty Belle

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