U.S. Voting Age Is Lowered to Eighteen Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After many years of debating the issue, Americans amended the U.S. Constitution to lower the voting age to eighteen, and young voters became a potentially powerful new political force.

Summary of Event

In colonial America, most colonies adopted the English practice specifying twenty-one years of age as the minimum voting age. A lower age was allowed only for men voting on militia officers. A uniform lowering of the voting age was debated as early as the New York Constitutional Convention of 1897. By 1942, when the U.S. Congress discussed it in relation to lowering the draft age to eighteen years of age, the notion had acquired significant public support. Between 1925 and 1964, nearly sixty proposals had been introduced in Congress. Voting rights;young people Twenty-sixth Amendment (U.S. Constitution)[Twenty sixth Amendment] Suffrage;Twenty-sixth Amendment (U.S. Constitution)[Twenty sixth Amendment] [kw]U.S. Voting Age Is Lowered to Eighteen (June 30, 1971) [kw]Voting Age Is Lowered to Eighteen, U.S. (June 30, 1971) [kw]Age Is Lowered to Eighteen, U.S. Voting (June 30, 1971) [kw]Eighteen, U.S. Voting Age Is Lowered to (June 30, 1971) Voting rights;young people Twenty-sixth Amendment (U.S. Constitution)[Twenty sixth Amendment] Suffrage;Twenty-sixth Amendment (U.S. Constitution)[Twenty sixth Amendment] [g]North America;June 30, 1971: U.S. Voting Age Is Lowered to Eighteen[00340] [g]United States;June 30, 1971: U.S. Voting Age Is Lowered to Eighteen[00340] [c]Civil rights and liberties;June 30, 1971: U.S. Voting Age Is Lowered to Eighteen[00340] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 30, 1971: U.S. Voting Age Is Lowered to Eighteen[00340] Eisenhower, Dwight D. Kennedy, Ted Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;Twenty-sixth Amendment[Twenty sixth Amendment] Randolph, Jennings

The argument most often advanced for lowering the voting age—and the principal argument during the first period (1941 to 1952) of the thirty-year movement—was youth’s forced military participation. In 1942, the Selective Service and Training Act lowered the draft age to eighteen years. Between fall, 1942, and October, 1944, several joint resolutions were introduced in Congress to lower the voting age by amending the Constitution, and forty resolutions were introduced in thirty states. The 1944 Democratic National Convention included voting age as a plank in the party platform, and the issue was the 1943-1944 national school debate topic. Interest escalated; from 1945 to 1952, nearly one hundred bills were introduced in the legislatures of more than forty states.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower endorsed the measure in his January, 1954, state of the union address. In 1956, he again urged a constitutional amendment. During this period, youth’s military service was still a major argument. In Senate debate on the issue, in April, 1943, it was argued that because the nation had interrupted the careers and jeopardized the lives of eighteen-year-olds, it should honor their sacrifices by extending them the vote. Senator Hubert H. Humphrey Humphrey, Hubert H. argued that the measure would get youth to participate in politics at a point when they were interested in and enthusiastic about government, lessen voter apathy, and broaden the base of democracy by adding a large number of voters.

A clerk delivers instructions to an eighteen-year-old who has just registered to vote in 1971, following passage of the Twenty-sixth Amendment lowering the voting age requirement.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Several widely varying arguments against lowering the voting age were advanced in 1953: Youth younger than twenty-one years of age did not have the wisdom and experience to evaluate political issues and would espouse the views of their parents; youth should obtain both schooling and experience before exercising the vote, rather than learning from the experience of voting; the parallel between military service and voting is false, because soldiers need only uncritical obedience and physical, not intellectual, maturity; youth do not have enough knowledge of the country’s history and are susceptible to the appeal of radicalism; since the U.S. government is representative, the voice of youth could be heard through their elders, who elect legislators; and the argument “old enough to fight, old enough to vote” does not enfranchise women and suggests that those too old to fight should lose the right to vote.

During the second phase of the movement (1953-1960), arguments generally related to youths’ cognizance of their political place in society. In 1954, a quiz was conducted by the American Institute of Public Opinion. On seven questions testing basic political knowledge, persons between eighteen and twenty-one years of age did much better than adults.

In 1967, Senator Jennings Randolph of West Virginia introduced his eighth joint resolution for a constitutional amendment to lower the voting age to eighteen years; his first had been in 1942. That same year, more than one hundred measures were introduced in thirty-six state legislatures, and a Gallup poll showed support at an all-time high: 64 percent of adults and youth. In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson Johnson, Lyndon B. proposed that Congress submit a constitutional amendment for ratification by the states—the second such proposal from a president. Richard M. Nixon, in his 1968 campaign for president, promised youth “a piece of the action.” Late that same year, a youth movement called Let Us Vote Let Us Vote (LUV) was founded by Dennis Warren, Warren, Dennis a student at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. In six weeks, the sophisticated, widely publicized campaign expanded to more than three thousand high schools and four hundred colleges in all states. The Youth Franchise Coalition Youth Franchise Coalition (of which LUV became a member) was organized on February 5, 1969. It used the multiple strategies of working through state legislation, a constitutional amendment, and separate campaigns mounted by member organizations. In 1968, the Republican Party called for state action to lower the voting age, while the Democratic platform endorsed a constitutional amendment. In April, 1969, a survey found that 93 percent of U.S. representatives favored the cause, as well as most federal and state senators. In this final phase of the movement, youth’s strategy of active insistence on being enfranchised was making a difference.

Additional rationales for the measure surfaced during this period. Those who defended the existing age restrictions, it was argued, should prove that eighteen-year-olds, as a group, lacked the knowledge and maturity to vote responsibly and that allowing them to vote would damage the system of responsible government. Others argued that the real objective of the states should not be to limit the vote to those best informed but to see that all voters were reasonably well informed. Statistics and surveys showed that, as a result of improvements in education and mass communication, eighteen-year-olds were at least as well informed as twenty-one-year-olds had been when that minimum age was established. Voting rights cases had argued that all who have a stake in an election should be allowed to vote. This point added relevance to the “old enough to fight, old enough to vote” rhetoric. Men between eighteen and twenty years of age were the most vulnerable to conscription and to career disruption, injury, and death in wars; and elections arguably have an impact on war and peace.

On March 11, 1970, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield Mansfield, Mike introduced Amendment 545 to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Voting Rights Act (1965) The amendment, cosponsored by Senator Ted Kennedy, would lower the voting age to eighteen years in all elections. Kennedy’s support was buttressed by the opinions of several esteemed constitutional lawyers—in particular, Archibald Cox, Cox, Archibald whose 1966 article in the Harvard Law Review suggested a statutory amendment, as opposed to the cumbersome constitutional amendment process.

The bill passed, and President Nixon signed Public Law 91-285 into law on June 22, 1970. A test case against the law was filed in district court that same day. In 1970, seventeen states, three jurisdictions, and the U.S. Supreme Court Supreme Court, U.S.;voting rights assessed youth’s suitability for the vote. On December 21, 1970, the latter upheld P.L. 91-285 in respect to presidential and congressional elections, but found it unconstitutional for state and local elections. Nevertheless, on January 1, 1971, millions of youth gained the right to vote in national elections when they turned eighteen years of age.

On January 25, 1971, Senator Jennings Randolph introduced a joint resolution to amend the Constitution to allow eighteen-year-olds to vote. On March 10, the Senate passed the resolution unanimously. The House passed it on March 23, by a vote of four hundred to nineteen. In eight days, ten states had ratified the amendment. On June 30, 1971, Ohio became the thirty-sixth state to ratify the amendment; thus the Twenty-sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution became law.

Significance

In the 1972 national election, the voting patterns of eighteen- to twenty-year-old Americans were similar to those of Americans ages twenty-one to twenty-four. Since then, persons between the ages of eighteen and twenty have voted less than any other age group. Like the other age groups, more young voters participate in the more hotly contested elections than in other elections. Furthermore, the percentage of registered young voters who actually vote is about the same as the other age demographic groups. However, compared with older groups, fewer citizens in the young age group who are eligible are registered. Since the voting age was lowered to eighteen, traditionally 50-60 percent of American citizens ages eighteen to twenty-four have been registered to vote, compared with 70-80 percent of citizens over fifty-five years of age. Voting rights;young people Twenty-sixth Amendment (U.S. Constitution)[Twenty sixth Amendment] Suffrage;Twenty-sixth Amendment (U.S. Constitution)[Twenty sixth Amendment]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Congress and the Voting-Age Controversy.” Congressional Digest 49 (March 15-April 15, 1970): 130-160. Similar in format and information to the 1954 Congressional Digest article cited below. Updates the information on congressional and state actions. Reprints lengthy, detailed testimony from Senator Ted Kennedy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cultice, Wendell W. Youth’s Battle for the Ballot: A History of Voting Age in America. New York: Greenwood Press, 1992. Detailed analysis, dividing the effort into four periods and examining the role of various constituencies during each. Selective bibliography of sources, 1941-1991.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Julia E., comp. Lowering the Voting Age. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1944. Anthology reprinting discussions and arguments for and against the measure, including newspaper and magazine articles, journal articles, pamphlets, books, and excerpts from congressional hearings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“The Question of Lowering the Voting Age to Eighteen.” Congressional Digest 33, no. 3 (March, 1954): 67-95. Provides background information on the origin of the twenty-one-year-old voting age, constitutional references to voting age, states’ rights, and the voting age in other countries. Includes statements from congresspersons and others.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roth, Robert. “A Rapid Change of Sentiment.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 397 (September, 1971): 83-87. Explains the rapid dissolution of resistance to lowering the voting age and speculates on the political impact the voting patterns of new young voters might have.

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