The 26th Amendment to the United States Constitution granted American citizens aged 18 and older the right to vote. Congress proposed it March 23, 1971 and the states ratified it 107 days later. It passed much more quickly than any other amendment in the constitutional process. To explore this concept, consider the following 26th Amendment definition.
Definition of 26th Amendment
- The Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that lowered the voting age to 18.
Ratified on July 1, 1971
What is the 26th Amendment?
The history of the 26th Amendment began in the 20th century. Prior to its passage, the government had set the voting age at 21. Repeated attempts at a legislative change failed, but the pressure to lower the voting age increased during the Vietnam War. On March 10, 1971, the Senate voted in favor of an amendment that would lower the minimum voting age to 18. It passed the house on March 23, 1971, and state legislatures ratified it on July 1, 1971. In all 26th Amendment examples, state and federal governments cannot use age to deny citizens 18 and older the right to vote.
The 26th Amendment meaning lies in its simple text:
“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.”
History of the 26th Amendment
The history of the 26th Amendment goes back to World War II. At that time, the government compelled young men to fight for their country, yet it denied them the right to vote. Senator Harley Kilgore pushed for lowering the voting age at the 77th Congress in 1941.
Even with the support of several key figures including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Congress did not act on the proposal. In 1943, the state of Georgia passed measures to lower the voting age to 18, and Kentucky followed suit in 1945.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower expressed support for lowering the minimum voting age during his 1954 State of the Union address. During the 1960s, the pressure on Congress and state legislatures increased, mostly due to the Vietnam War. Marches and demonstrations took place to draw lawmakers’ attention to the issue of voting age.
In 1969, Congress received around 60 resolutions to lower the minimum voting age, but once again failed to act. The next year, Congress passed a bill that amended Voting Rights Act of 1965. The provision lowered the voting age to 18 for elections on the local, state, and federal levels.
President Richard M. Nixon signed the bill into law, but publicly expressed his opposition to it. He did not disagree with lowering the voting age, but he believed the provision required a constitutional amendment.
The same year that Congress amended the Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court invalidated parts of it. The court ruled that Congress lacked the power to implement voting requirements in state and local elections.
Old Enough to Fight, Old Enough to Vote
In September 1940, Congress imposed the first peacetime draft, which required men between the ages of 21 and 36 to register. In 1942, the U.S. had joined World War II and President Franklin D. Roosevelt lowered the drafting age to 18. However, the minimum voting age of 21 did not change. This angered voting rights groups, and many adopted the slogan “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote.” They believed that young men should have the right to vote for the government drafting them.
The slogan prompted Jennings Randolph to introduce federal legislation to lower the voting age in 1942. During his political career, the Senator from West Virginia unsuccessfully introduced examples of the 26th Amendment 11 more times. The pressure on the government to lowering the voting age intensified during the Vietnam War. During the war, student activists also adopted the “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote” slogan.
Opposition to the 26th Amendment
Even after Nixon signed the 1970 extension to the Voting Rights Act, opposition to the 26th Amendment grew stronger. Seventeen states refused to lower the minimum voting age. Those that opposed it argued that 18-year individuals lacked the maturity and responsibility necessary for voting.
Professor of History and Political Science, William G. Carleton, could not understand lowering the voting age at a time when adolescents had less responsibility than in the past. He believed that Americans equated higher education and knowledge about technology with intelligence and responsibility. He also asserted that common sense and an understanding of the political system should limit voting, not education and literacy.
Other opposition to the 26th Amendment examples involved Rep. Emanuel Celler, New York Democrat. Celler argued that the same traits that made young men good soldiers would have a negative effect on voting. Unlike older men, younger men tend to offer unquestioning obedience, making them an asset to the battlefield. Self-interested groups and corrupt politicians would use this obedience to sway or influence voters.
James J. Kilpatrick, a political columnist, had a different view. He asserted that Congress had extorted the states. In this example of the 26th Amendment, states would have to maintain two voting registries if they failed to ratify. To avoid the added expense of running separate systems for federal elections and other elections, they ratified it promptly.
26th Amendment Example In the Voting Rights Act of 1965
Oregon challenged the law and the issue went before the Supreme Court in 1970 as Oregon v Mitchell. The Voting Rights Act Amendment of 1970 required states to register those between the ages of 18 and 21 as voters. In response to the Act, the state of Oregon sued Attorney General John Mitchell and the United States government.
Oregon claimed that Congress did not have the authority to set the minimum wage in local and state elections. The Supreme Court agreed and ruled that Congress could set the voter requirements only in federal elections. The Court was deeply divided in the case as four justices disagreed with the decision.
With this ruling, citizens 18 to 20 years old could only vote for vice president and president. It created some confusion as the federal government still mandated the age limits of 18 for federal elections.
This in turn required separate voter registries in states with an age limit of 21. If state and federal occurred simultaneously, voters under 21 could only vote on portions of the ballot. In this 26th Amendment example, setting a uniform voting age ended the confusion.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Amendment – The modification, correction, addition to, or deletion from, a legal document.
- Authority – The right or power to make decisions, to give orders, or to control something or someone.
- Congress – The legislative branch of the United States federal government, composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
- Compelled – To be required to submit through the use of force or pressure.
- Majority – A number larger than half of the total.
- Ratification – Signing or giving formal consent to valid a proposed law.