U.S. Voting Age Is Lowered to Eighteen Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A combination of federal statute and the Twenty-sixth Amendment lowered the minimum voting age in the United States to eighteen, increasing the electorate by eleven million voters.

Summary of Event

Twenty-one was the minimum voting age throughout most of American history. By the American Revolution, twenty-one was the minimum age for voting in all British colonies, as the colonies had adopted England’s standard. The U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1787, left the definition of the elective franchise to the states, and all kept it at age twenty-one. Constitution, U.S.;Twenty-sixth Amendment[Twentysixth Amendment] Twenty-sixth Amendment[Twentysixth Amendment] Voting rights;young people [kw]U.S. Voting Age Is Lowered to Eighteen (1970-1971) [kw]Voting Age Is Lowered to Eighteen, U.S. (1970-1971) [kw]Age Is Lowered to Eighteen, U.S. Voting (1970-1971) Constitution, U.S.;Twenty-sixth Amendment[Twentysixth Amendment] Twenty-sixth Amendment[Twentysixth Amendment] Voting rights;young people [g]North America;1970-1971: U.S. Voting Age Is Lowered to Eighteen[10660] [g]United States;1970-1971: U.S. Voting Age Is Lowered to Eighteen[10660] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;1970-1971: U.S. Voting Age Is Lowered to Eighteen[10660] [c]Government and politics;1970-1971: U.S. Voting Age Is Lowered to Eighteen[10660] Mansfield, Mike Celler, Emanuel Bayh, Birch Black, Hugo L. Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;voting age

The electorate expanded vastly over the next century and a half: States gradually abolished property qualifications, the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) was intended to safeguard the voting rights of former slaves, and the Nineteenth Amendment (1920) enfranchised women. Although the latter two set precedents for federal definition of voting rights by constitutional amendment, Congress never considered a lower voting age. Nor, with one exception, did the states—the New York legislature voted down such a proposal in 1867. The country was apparently content with a voting age of twenty-one.

The first indication of a change in attitude came during World War II. Motivated by the belief that a person old enough to fight and die for his or her country ought to be old enough to vote, various members of Congress introduced proposed constitutional amendments to lower the voting age to eighteen. The proposals, however, received little serious consideration. State legislatures also began to take up the question. Interest peaked in 1943, when about thirty states considered lowering the voting age. Only in Georgia, however, were proponents of the change successful.

The Korean War saw a revival of interest in the question. Again the major momentum was a perceived connection between military service and voting rights. The Senate voted thirty-four to twenty-four in favor of a proposed amendment, but this fell short of the necessary two-thirds majority. Thirty-five states considered changes during the early 1950’s but only Kentucky lowered its voting age (to eighteen). In 1958, Alaska entered the union under a constitution that allowed nineteen-year-olds to vote, and Hawaii followed the next year with one enfranchising twenty-year-olds.

A more sustained revival of interest came in the late 1960’s. The Vietnam War resurrected earlier arguments. This time another factor was at work as well: The baby-boom generation (those born between 1946 and 1964) was beginning to come of age. The population explosion that had followed World War II not only produced the largest demographic surge in modern American history but also made American society much more conscious of youth. Lowering the voting age had natural appeal to the maturing baby-boomers. It was no surprise that organizations such as the Youth Franchise Coalition Youth Franchise Coalition formed to lobby for the change. Public opinion polls began to show a growing majority in favor of a lower voting age.

Congress began to react. The late 1960’s saw the introduction of an increasing number of proposed youth suffrage amendments. In May, 1968, a Senate subcommittee opened hearings on the subject. Every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower had endorsed a lower voting age, and after 1968, the Richard M. Nixon administration showed signs of active support. In various states, there was also a flurry of activity.

The question received a thorough airing in the media, and a national debate took place. Proponents of a lowered voting age marshaled a number of arguments. The nation’s young people were better educated than ever before, it was argued, and giving them the vote would encourage civic responsibility. The “old enough to fight, old enough to vote” argument was again offered. It had added strength because, by 1970, almost one-half of all Americans killed in Vietnam were under age twenty-one. Georgia and Kentucky were cited as examples to show that the change would not collapse the structure of politics. Others believed that lowering the voting age would be a step toward bridging the “generation gap” that was then a much-discussed topic.

There remained, however, vocal opposition to lowering the voting age. Those against the idea rejected the connection between military service and voting rights. Much of the opposition centered on the alleged immaturity of those in their late teens: It was argued that they lacked the life experience on which to ground political judgments. The young, some felt, would be more susceptible to manipulation either by their parents or by the increasingly sophisticated use of the media by politicians. Some conservatives feared that the young would vote as a liberal bloc.

It was in this atmosphere that Congress began, in 1970, to extend serious consideration to the issue. A Senate subcommittee chaired by Democratic senator Birch Bayh of Indiana, a strong advocate of the vote for eighteen-year-olds, reopened hearings; however, the prospects of the proposed constitutional amendment were uncertain. The House Judiciary Committee House Committee on the Judiciary would have to report on the measure, and its chairman, Emanuel Celler (a New York Democrat) was a staunch foe of lowering the voting age. Moreover, the amendment process itself presented a number of hurdles: Two-thirds majorities in both houses of Congress were required, to be followed by ratification by three-fourths of the state legislatures. Forty-six of the states had thus far refrained from amending their own constitutions on this subject—and three had recently rejected attempts to do so—so ratification was far from certain.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana, one of the leading advocates of a lower voting age, devised an alternative strategy: Congress would simply legislate the vote for eighteen-year-olds. This would require only a simple majority of each house, provided that the president did not veto the measure, and would leave the states entirely out of the process. The constitutionality of such a course, however, would be open to challenge. Previous restrictions on state power to determine voting requirements were based on constitutional amendments that prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, sex, or failure to pay taxes. A law reducing the voting age would almost certainly meet a court challenge. Mansfield and others believed that recent court decisions, most notably in the case of Katzenbach v. Morgan, had expanded congressional power to regulate elections under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, so there was a chance that legislation could survive a court challenge.

Mansfield took the opportunity provided by the Senate’s consideration of a renewal and expansion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the legislative landmarks of the Civil Rights movement. The version of the bill that had already passed the House came before the Senate in March, 1970, and Mansfield offered an amendment that lowered the voting age to eighteen for all elections, effective January 1, 1971. After considerable debate, the Mansfield Amendment was adopted, eighty-four to seven. The amended Voting Rights Act was then sent back to the House. Congressman Celler was one of the House’s strongest supporters of civil rights legislation. He feared that if the House refused to go along with the Senate version the consequent reconsideration would weaken the act’s ability to protect minority rights. He therefore went along with the Senate version, and it passed the House easily.

There was some question as to whether President Nixon would veto the bill. He had stated his opposition to lowering the voting age in this fashion, and his political advisers urged a veto on the grounds that much of the youth vote would go to his opponent in 1972. Nixon, however, signed the Voting Rights Act of 1970, Mansfield Amendment and all, on June 22, 1970. He also urged Congress to continue consideration of a constitutional amendment.

Expectations of an early court test were correct. In early August, 1970, the states of Oregon and Texas asked the Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional the lowered voting age provision of the act. On December 21, 1970, the Court handed down its decision in the case of Oregon v. Mitchell. Oregon v. Mitchell (1970) In a 5-4 decision, it upheld the Mansfield Amendment so far as it applied to federal elections, but it declared unconstitutional its application to state and local elections.

The Court was badly divided on the question, and the decision turned on the attitude of a single justice, Hugo L. Black, who wrote the majority opinion in the case. Four members of the Court thought that the Mansfield Amendment was entirely unconstitutional, while four others believed that Congress could regulate all elections. Only Black believed the amendment to be valid in federal elections but not in others. The majority opinion of necessity reflected Black’s views.

The decision in Oregon v. Mitchell threatened most of the country with electoral chaos. Unless states brought their voting age requirements into line with the new federal law, they would be forced to maintain separate electorates that might even require separate elections. Potential confusion and the certainty of greater expense loomed as the 1972 elections drew nearer. To many, a constitutional amendment lowering the voting age was now much more attractive. When Congress returned in January, 1971, Bayh’s subcommittee resumed hearings, and a joint resolution proposing suffrage for eighteen-year-olds in all elections easily passed on March 23, 1971 (by votes of 94 to 0 in the Senate and 400 to 19 in the House). The states responded with dispatch: It took only 107 days for the requisite number of states to ratify the Twenty-sixth Amendment, the shortest ratification period in American history. People between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one now had the vote in every state.

Significance

The major impact of the Mansfield-amended Voting Rights Act of 1970 and the Twenty-sixth Amendment was to increase the electorate. An estimated eleven million more Americans became eligible to vote. In this sense, the effect of the change ranks with the impacts of the Fifteenth and Nineteenth amendments in producing sudden and massive increases in the number of potential voters.

The political impact of the lowered voting age was less dramatic. Politicians, columnists, and political scientists produced a growing body of predictions on the likely effect of the youth vote, with particular regard to the upcoming presidential election of 1972. Some believed that the newly enfranchised would vote in smaller proportions than older voters, as those voters in their early twenties already did, and would follow the tendencies of their parents. Others, bearing in mind the razor-thin margins of the 1960 and 1968 elections, forecast that the youth vote in 1972 would be decisive. Many expected the new voters to be overwhelmingly aligned with the Democrats. At the local level, cities and towns with large student populations began to fear that older electorates would be swamped by the newcomers and that city halls across the country would be occupied by long-haired radicals.

As it turned out, the predictions of large-scale political change were wrong. The 1972 presidential election attracted only about 55.6 percent of potential voters, the lowest turnout since 1948, and a study by the Census Bureau revealed that only 48 percent of those enfranchised by the Twenty-sixth Amendment reported casting votes. The actual portion was thought to be even lower. The Democratic candidate, Senator George McGovern, had gone out of his way to attract the youth vote, and some had predicted that it could provide him with the margin of victory. The young, however, did not vote as a bloc and divided their votes equally between the two candidates. The lowering of the voting age did little to avert the Nixon landslide, and very few college and university towns elected campus activists, as some had predicted.

There was a marked decline in interest in studying the politics of the young after the 1972 election. Those who investigated the subject confirmed the failure of the lower voting age to drastically alter American politics. Voters aged eighteen to twenty-one typically have the lowest turnout rate of any age group, and their political choices are much more likely to be shaped by education, occupation, ethnic background, and other variables than they are by age.

Although obtaining the vote for eighteen-year-olds did not change the face of American politics, it was not without importance. In addition to a sizable expansion of the electorate, it marked a recognition of the importance of youth and may well have helped secure other changes sought by the emerging baby-boom generation, such as lowering the drinking age (which proved to be temporary) and ending the draft. In the long run, the Twenty-sixth Amendment may be seen as one of the baby-boom generation’s most enduring monuments. Constitution, U.S.;Twenty-sixth Amendment[Twentysixth Amendment] Twenty-sixth Amendment[Twentysixth Amendment] Voting rights;young people

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beck, Paul Allen, and M. Kent Jennings. “Lowering the Voting Age: The Case of the Reluctant Electorate.” Public Opinion Quarterly 33 (Fall, 1969): 370-379. Based on a study of high-school seniors conducted in 1965. Finds a surprising lack of support for lowering the voting age at that time. Sees the major momentum for the change developing after 1965.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carleton, William G. “Votes for Teen-agers.” Yale Review 58 (October, 1968): 45-60. A political scientist’s arguments against lowering the voting age. Carleton finds that eighteen-year-olds are not yet mature and would be too susceptible to the manipulative trends he contends already corrupt American politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Congress and the Voting-Age Controversy.” Congressional Digest 49 (May, 1970): 130-160. Provides a wealth of information on the topic including a state-by-state summary of efforts to lower the voting age. Also includes Senate arguments on both sides of the Mansfield Amendment.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Evans, Rowland, Jr., and Robert D. Novak. Nixon in the White House: The Frustration of Power. New York: Random House, 1971. A political history of Nixon’s first administration, stressing its inconsistencies in domestic policy. Contains an account of Nixon’s decision, against the counsel of most of his advisers, not to veto the 1970 Voting Rights Act. No bibliography, but does have an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jones, Landon Y. Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1980. Although it contains a brief discussion of the consequences of lowering the voting age, this book’s greatest value is in its overall social and political portrait of the baby-boom generation. Very helpful for putting the events of 1970-1971 in context. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roth, Robert. “A Rapid Change of Sentiment: Lowering the Voting Age.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 397 (September, 1971): 83-87. Discusses the unanticipated collapse of opposition to lowering the voting age and speculates as to the effect it would have on American politics. Accurately predicted that the new voters would not vote as a bloc.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Seagull, Louis M. Youth and Change in American Politics. New York: New Viewpoints, 1977. A general treatment of the role of youth in American politics in the 1960’s and 1970’s, including consideration of the vote for eighteen-year-olds. Sees the resulting major change as a tendency for younger voters to be more independent and less inclined to have strong party identifications. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stephenson, Doland Grier, Jr. “A New Consensus on Voting Age.” In The Right to Vote: Rights and Liberties Under the Law. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2004. Places voting age in the context of other voting rights issues. Argues that eighteen-year-old voters are no longer as controversial as they were when the voting age was lowered. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wattenberg, Martin P. Is Voting for Young People? New York: Pearson Longman, 2007. Examination of the youth vote in the United States, including the relationship between the media and young voters, their level of education and involvement, and the effects of low youth turnout on overall electoral outcomes. Bibliographic references and indexes.

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