Twenty-sixth Amendment

views updated May 14 2018

Twenty-sixth Amendment

Section 1.

The right of the 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.

Section 2.

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

The Twenty-sixth Amendment, which gave anyone over the age of eighteen the right to vote in federal, state, and local elections, was quickly put together and ratified in the face of possible contradictions between state and federal voting laws. The amendment was ratified by the states in just 107 days, making it the quickest amendment ever approved by the states. The speed with which it was ratified masked the controversy and legal problems that led to its creation.

Ratification Facts


Submitted by Congress to the states on March 23, 1971.


Ratified by the required three-fourths of states (38 of 50) on July 1, 1971, and by four more states in November of that year. Declared to be part of the Constitution on July 5, 1971.

Ratifying States:

Connecticut, March 23, 1971; Delaware, March 23, 1971; Minnesota, March 23, 1971; Tennessee, March 23, 1971; Washington, March 23, 1971; Hawaii, March 24, 1971; Massachusetts, March 24, 1971; Montana, March 29, 1971; Arkansas, March 30, 1971; Idaho, March 30, 1971; Iowa, March 30, 1971; Nebraska, April 2, 1971; New Jersey, April 3, 1971; Kansas, April 7, 1971; Michigan, April 7, 1971; Alaska, April 8, 1971; Maryland, April 8, 1971; Indiana, April 8, 1971; Maine, April 9, 1971; Vermont, April 16, 1971; Louisiana, April 17, 1971; California, April 19, 1971; Colorado, April 27, 1971; Pennsylvania, April 27, 1971; Texas, April 27, 1971; South Carolina, April 28, 1971; West Virginia, April 28, 1971; New Hampshire, May 13, 1971; Arizona, May 14, 1971; Rhode Island, May 27, 1971; New York, June 2, 1971; Oregon, June 4, 1971; Missouri, June 14, 1971; Wisconsin, June 22, 1971; Illinois, June 29, 1971; Alabama, June 30, 1971; Ohio, June 30, 1971; North Carolina, July 1, 1971; Oklahoma, July 1, 1971.

The Right to Vote

The question of who may vote has been a primary concern of democracies since their origins in ancient Greece. As the creators of democracy, the Greeks thought citizenship was very important. In fact, the philosopher Aristotle himself argued that the highest calling one had was as a citizen of society. Greek citizens were responsible for contributing to society by fulfilling their duties, for example as teachers, soldiers, and merchants. Voting was one of the most important acts of a citizen, but the right to vote was by no means universal. The Greeks eventually decided to give the vote to free males over the age of eighteen, while the Romans fixed the minimum voting age for males at twenty–five. Most ancient civilizations required that citizens be property owners and male.

Voting requirements have continued to be an issue for modern societies. The Twenty–sixth Amendment to the Constitution is the fourth amendment to clarify voting rights; the others are the Fifteenth, the Nineteenth, and the Twenty–third. Before the Twenty–sixth Amendment was ratified by Congress, however, only citizens aged twenty–one or older were allowed to vote, and during the country’s early days, many states restricted voting rights to white male property owners. Women, slaves, and all others who did not fit into this select category were denied the right to vote.

The road to a more inclusive democracy in the United States tells the story of developing ideas of citizenship. As various colonies required more from their occupants, such as paying taxes, military service, and the like, they were forced to extend suffrage, or the right to vote, to more people. Events such as the American Revolution (1775–83) also influenced changes in voting requirements. People were troubled by the fact that they could go to war and die for their country yet still be unable to vote. Slogans such as “Old enough to fight, old enough to die”—first used during the Revolutionary period to argue for lowering the voting age—began to resonate with young adults who resented their partial exclusion from the category of “citizen.” The adoption of a uniform voting age for all states, however, did not come about until the twentieth century.

Wartime Sentiments

The War of 1812 provided potential voters with another opportunity to argue for an extension of male suffrage. Supporters of a lower minimum voting age argued that those who served in the war fought equally well, regardless of their age. Additionally, many argued that the civic responsibilities of eighteen- and twenty-one-year olds were so similar that to deny the former the right to vote was an outdated formality. Despite the logic of these arguments, however, most states resisted changing the age requirement and opted only for relaxing property ownership requirements attached to voting rights.

The Civil War (1861–65) revived calls for youth suffrage in the North. With over 500,000 Union soldiers seventeen years old or younger, the time seemed right to argue for a reduction of the minimum age; in fact, one future president, William McKinley, was among those in that age group who fought bravely in the Civil War. Although the reform issue was argued at the New York Constitutional Convention in 1867, it fell flat. Instead, support for changes in suffrage regulations focused primarily on extending the right to vote to black Americans and women, and those under the age of twenty-one would have to wait.

World War I.

The United States entrance into World War I (1914–1918) meant that the federal government needed a pool of soldiers ready to protect the country’s interests overseas. To meet this need, Congress passed the Selective Service Act in 1917, which declared that those between the ages of twenty-one and thirty could be drafted to fight for the United States. Realizing that more soldiers might be needed for the war effort, Congress lowered the draft age to eighteen the following year. Although this prompted the push to change the voting age, little actual progress was made at this time. Youths frustrated by the hypocrisy they saw in this move asked an age-old question: How could they be mature enough to pick up a machine gun and go to war, yet not mature enough to cast a ballot at the polls?

Although women got the vote with the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, the issue of lowering the age requirement largely disappeared from public attention with the end of World War I. The onset of World War II, though, brought renewed vigor against what many saw as the hypocrisy of the voting age requirement.

The Draft and World War II.

With the first peacetime draft issued by Congress in 1940, the question of suffrage reform was once again drew public discussion. Although polls showed that the vast majority of Americans looked unfavorably upon lowering the voting age (eighty–three percent versus seventeen percent, according to a Gallup poll conducted in 1939 and cited in Kris Palmer’s Constitutional Amendments), supporters remained determined to sway the majority. The first attempt to pass a constitutional amendment came from Senator Harley Kilgore—a Democrat from West Virginia—before the United States officially entered World War II in 1941. The growth in the number of youths attending American schools also encouraged those working for voting reform. Such groups as the Young Voters’ League, formed in 1941, hoped to organize the huge numbers of potential voters now coming of age.

By this time, there were signs of real progress. Though supporters of a lower voting age did not yet constitute a majority, they were at least becoming more bipartisan. In 1942, Michigan’s Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg, as quoted in Youth’s Battle for the Ballot, opened his argument to the president with this comment: “Mr. President, if young men are to be drafted at eighteen years of age to fight for their government, they ought to be entitled to vote at eighteen years of age for the kind of government for which they are best satisfied to fight.”

Feeling confident that support for an amendment was growing, backers began pushing proposals at both the state and federal levels. Only one of the numerous proposals was successful, however. In 1943, Georgia became the first state to lower the voting age to eighteen. The irony, of course, was that this progressive move on the part of Georgians came at the same time that their state constitution denied African Americans the right to vote.

The Selective Service Act of 1917

Throughout most of U.S. history, cash bonuses were paid to enlistees to attract them to military service; this practice was widely known as the “Bounty System.” During the French and Indian Wars, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican-American War, bonuses included land grants as well as cash incentives. Civil War bonuses were only given in cash. In general, states offered higher bonuses than the federal government. Wealthy areas sometimes offered as much as $1,000 to entice soldiers to their ranks, while federal bonuses were generally in the range of $100 to $400, depending on the length of enlistment.

The bounty system was not without its problems. Abuses were common. Enlistees would simply collect their bonuses and then never show up for actual service. It was not uncommon, in fact, for individuals to go through this process several times in various locations to maximize their profits. Because of such problems, and because World War I demanded a more reliable form of troop mobilization, the practice of handing out bonuses for military service was outlawed in the Selective Service Act of 1917.

The American contribution to World War I, while relatively small compared to that of the Allies, was still considerable in terms of the outcome of the war. The U.S. Navy, fully prepared at the beginning of U.S. entry into the battle, joined the British in overcoming the submarine threat posed by the Germans. Additionally, the U.S. Army consisted, by this time, of some 4 million soldiers—due mainly to conscription under the Selective Service Act. The huge infusion of manpower under this act tipped the balance in the favor of the Allies and helped end the war in November 1918.

The United States first enacted a peacetime draft with the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940. The idea was to train a limited number of soldiers—no more than 900,000 at any one time—for a fixed period of service that began as one year and was later extended to eighteen months. The U.S. entry into World War II, however, increased demand for new soldiers. As a result, another Selective Service Act was established that made men between the ages of eighteen and forty–five eligible for military service; the act also required all men between eighteen and sixty–five to register. From 1940 to 1947, the government drafted over 10 million men to serve in the military. The end of the war brought another change to the act. The new legislation required men between the ages of eighteen and twenty–six to register, and specified that those between the ages of nineteen and twenty–six could be required to serve for twenty–one months, followed by an additional five years of reserve duty.

The Selective Service Act underwent various other changes with the Korean and Vietnam Wars. It was the Vietnam War, however, that eventually led to its temporary demise. Many young men sought educational deferments, which allowed them to postpone their service if they were enrolled in school, or they tried to obtain conscientious objector exemptions from their draft boards. But since these and other kinds of exemptions were given more often to middle-class white men than to working-class and poor men, conscription became a major issue of debate. Demonstrations were held at draft boards, and many young men chose to evade the draft altogether for various reasons; many fled the country and some even went to prison. By 1973, social protest led to the abolition of conscription in favor of an all-voluntary military, and President Gerald Ford later granted clemency to many draft dodgers.

The issue of draft registration, however, did not end there. In 1980, Congress reinstituted registration for men between the ages of eighteen and twenty–five. In the event of a crisis, age and a random lottery would dictate who would be drafted to serve in the military.

Shifting Support for Lowering Voting Age

The end of World War II signaled a change in the number of Americans willing to consider lowering the voting age. In fact, one poll gave the supporters a majority, though it proved to be short-lived. By the late 1940s, support for an amendment seemed to be fading into the background once again. Indeed, it appeared that crises were the only times that support for an amendment could be sustained in the public realm. If times were quiet, people saw no need to make a change.

As it happened, the second half of the twentieth century was full of crises. From the beginning of the cold war (1945–53) to the wars in Korea (1950–53) and Vietnam (1954–75), there was plenty of trouble around which supporters of a voting age amendment could mobilize the call for equality between what was expected of the country’s youth and what was afforded them in terms of their rights and privileges as citizens. Even McCarthyism—the name given to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s campaign in the late 1940s and early 1950s to expose “supposed” Communist spies in the United States—was used to attempt to advance the cause, for if potential Communists were allowed to vote, argued some, the least this country could do was to extend the same opportunity to its patriots.

The time after World War II also brought more prestige to the ranks of suffrage support. Convinced that if the country could ask young people to go into battle it should also allow them to vote, President Dwight D. Eisenhower began actively pushing for a national amendment that would lower the voting age. Indeed, with the president behind them how could the voting-age suffragists fail?

States’ Rights

Though supporters of lowering the voting age were gaining support, many failed to see that the issue at hand was larger than a mere lowering of the voting age. Since this country’s founding, the debate over the right of states to set their own laws, rather than having them forced upon them by the federal government, has been intense. The resistance to voting reform on the grounds of immaturity, for example, was significant. Perhaps more pervasive, however, was the resistance among state lawmakers to allow the federal government to infringe upon the rights of states to set their own suffrage terms. In this sense, then, young people were being used as the battlefield upon which a larger war was being fought.

Opposition to the voting age amendment was particularly strong in the South, where resentment over federal intrusion into state politics has a long history. This resentment, traceable to at least Civil War times, was very clear when, in 1954, lawmakers failed by a vote of 34 to 24 to pass a resolution lowering the voting age. Feeling intense pressure to end their blockage of voting rights for blacks, southern states were in no mood to respond positively to federal pressure aimed at lowering the voting age as well. The only exception to this came in Kentucky when, in 1954, the General Assembly became the second state to lower the voting age to eighteen.

By midcentury, however, even the prestige of presidential support was not enough to convince the vast majority of Americans and lawmakers that supporting a lower voting age was in the country’s interest. The battle continued, though quietly, on the state front for another decade. On the federal level, not much progress was made despite Eisenhower’s call for a federal amendment in his 1956 State of the Union address. In the end, it took another major crisis to bring the debate back into the public domain.

The Vietnam War

The Vietnam War caused sentiment to change in favor of a federal amendment lowering the voting age. Objecting to U.S. participation in the war, young Americans began holding protests during the 1960s. Not only did they protest the war itself, but many revived the slogan, “If we’re old enough to fight, we’re old enough to vote,” and added it to their list of complaints surrounding U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Indeed, their logic was sound. If those under twenty–one were old enough to be drafted by the government to fight in a war that might cost them their lives, it only followed that they should at least have a voice in the affairs of the government and in the broader political process. Moreover, eighteen-year-olds were no longer protected under juvenile laws and had to bear the criminal and civil consequences of their actions in a court of law. Because of this, proponents argued, eighteen year olds were already legally adults who should be afforded all of the benefits that came with their responsibilities.

Some older Americans, of course, continued to argue against handing the vote to those under twenty–one. Their arguments focused primarily on the notion that young people had no real stake in the political process of the country, and their participation in it would lead to political instability. Furthermore, they argued, most people between twenty–one and thirty never voted anyway, so it would be foolish to assume that those under twenty–one would be any different. Although it might have been true that many younger Americans did not vote as regularly as their elders did, to deny those who would take the vote seriously the opportunity to participate on those grounds was unconvincing to many.

Protestors picked up on the weakness of such arguments and countered with stronger arguments of their own. Chief among their points was the draft, which gave them a stake in their country. Additionally, sixty percent of eighteen- to twenty-year-olds at this time worked and paid taxes. Additionally, this age group had a higher level of education than many of their parents, who did not attend college—a fact that further strengthened the legitimacy of age-based suffrage reform.

Indeed, many of the arguments against lowering the voting age began to crumble under the weight of changing times. No longer could older Americans argue that the youth were uninformed and, therefore, a threat to the stability of the political process. In fact, because of the emerging mass media during the 1960s, young Americans were much better informed than their counterparts were years before. Not only did the media and public opinion play an influential role in ending the Vietnam War, but they also played a significant role in suffrage reform. The hypocrisy of denying youth the right to vote who were being asked to fight was no longer easy to ignore. Young people had demonstrated political responsibility by participating in service organizations and political campaigns. Perhaps what the older generation feared most was the challenge to the status quo posed by young voters.

Supporters of these young Americans argued that their enthusiasm for participating in the political process should be acknowledged and rewarded. Furthermore, if their enthusiasm was harnessed at a young age there was a better chance of nourishing life-long participators in the political process. Although these arguments and the protests that arose out of the Vietnam War added significant momentum to the fight for suffrage reform, it would still be several years before the hope of a federal amendment to the Constitution would become a reality.

The Work before Ratification

In 1965, when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, the issue of voting age came before the legislators. Although the purpose of the act was to make it easier for black Americans to vote by eliminating literacy tests and authorizing the attorney general to send federal examiners to register black voters under certain circumstances, the issue of voting age came into play when the Voting Rights Act was amended in 1970. Backed by the momentum of the civil rights movement and by the Voting Rights Act, supporters of voting age reform began lobbying their representatives to bring a federal amendment before Congress once again. Their pressure worked. Many politicians began to support lowering the voting age. The final seal of approval came when the Nixon administration backed the idea of an amendment.

The battle, however, was not yet over. Rather than pushing through an amendment, the Senate instead passed legislation aimed at altering the voting age. The Voting Rights Act of 1970 was a practical law because lawmakers felt that an amendment had little chance of surviving the approval process in the Judiciary Committee, where one of its longtime members, Emanuel Celler, was strongly in opposition. Much to their surprise, however, Celler was no obstacle to the passage of the legislation, and on June 22, 1970, Nixon signed the law into effect.

Yet the legislation had one major problem: it contradicted the Constitution. States complained that the federal government could not set their voting requirements; the federal government argued that it had the authority to prevent states from denying the vote to anyone under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court reviewed the issue in Oregon v. Mitchell and ruled that part of the legislation was indeed unconstitutional because the federal government could not set voting requirements for state and local elections. That power was given to individual states in Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution, and many states resisted what they saw as an infringement on their jurisdiction by the federal government. The federal government could, however, according to Article I, Section 4; Article II, Section 1; and the Necessary and Proper Clause of the Constitution, lower the voting age for national elections. Justice Hugo Black explained the Court’s ruling: “It is the judgment of the Court that the 18-year-old vote provisions of the Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1970 are constitutional and enforceable insofar as they pertain to federal elections and unconstitutional and unenforceable insofar as they pertain to state and local elections.” There needed to be a constitutional amendment to ensure that eighteen-year-olds could vote in state and local elections.

Under the Court’s ruling, the minimum voting age for national elections would be eighteen, and each state would be left to determine its own minimums. For obvious reasons, this system would never have worked; chaos and confusion would have ruled at polling booths across the country. Not only would the expense of holding separate elections on the state and federal levels have been considerable, but maintaining two sets of voter registration books would have made the whole process quite cumbersome. Not surprisingly, the prospect of this confusion and added expense played into the hands of the supporters of suffrage reform. States quickly, if in some cases reluctantly, backed a federal amendment, choosing to lower their voting age before Congress could enact the confusing legislation.

The result was the proposal and quick ratification of the Twenty–sixth Amendment to the Constitution, despite the fact that roughly two–thirds of the country was still against the idea of eighteen-year-olds voting. Ironically, on one level the amendment was only ratified to avoid a messy situation. The victory for the supporters of the amendment, however, was real; they could now fully participate in the political process and enjoy the benefits of voting, which is so closely tied to the U.S. definition of citizenship.



Cultice, Wendell W. Youth’s Battle for the Ballot. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1992.

Morin, Isobel V. Our Changing Constitution: How and Why We Have Amended It. Brookfield, Connecticut: Millbrook Press, 1998.

Lehman, Jeffrey, and Shirelle Phelps, eds. West’s Encyclopedia of American Law. Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale, 2004.

Palmer, Kris E., ed. Constitutional Amendments, 1789 to the Present. Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale, 2000.

Rhodes, Joel P. The Voice of Violence: Performative Violence as Protest in the Vietnam Era. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001.

Youth Vote: The Registration and Voting Patterns of Youth since the Passage of the 26th Amendment in 1921. Cleveland, OH: League of Women Voters of Cleveland Educational Fund, 1999.


Karlan, Pamela S. “Ballots and Bullets: The Exceptional History of the Right to Vote,” University of Cincinnati Law Review. 71 (2003).

Troy, Patrick J. “No Place to Call Home: A Current Perspective on the Troubling Disenfranchisement of College Voters.” Journal of Law & Politics 22 (2006).

Twenty-Sixth Amendment

views updated May 23 2018

Twenty-Sixth Amendment

The Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified in 1971, lowered the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen years of age. Section One of the Amendment states "the right of citizens of the United States, who are 18 years of age or older, to vote, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age." At the time the amendment was ratified, significant popular support existed for lowering the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen years of age. However, the process of achieving this modification was not without conflict.

Popular discussion of lowering the voting age from twenty-one years of age to eighteen years of age first appeared in 1942 after Congress amended the Selective Service and Training Act to reflect a draft age of eighteen. From this year forward, on an annual basis, various federal legislators offered proposals to lower the voting age. In addition Presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, and Nixon each advocated lowering the voting age to eighteen. However the voting age remained at twenty-one until 1971. Wendell W. Cultice argues that the pervasive sense of crisis that was present during 1960s and 1970s caused young Americans, who felt unsupported by the political system, to organize and fight for modification of the voting age. The Vietnam War was especially significant in leading young Americans to seek the right to vote. Youth rallied around the slogan "old enough to fight, old enough to vote." Following the 1969 implementation of a lottery-style military draft, popular and political support for lowering the voting age increased.

As popular support grew for lowering the voting age to eighteen, Congress determined that the fastest way to extend the vote to eighteen-year olds would be through an amendment to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. However, many were concerned about whether this would violate the U.S. Constitution. Despite these concerns, President Nixon signed the 1970 Voting Rights Act, which contained a provision lowering the voting age to eighteen years of age, into law on June 22, 1970.

The United States Supreme Court addressed the constitutionality of the act in the 1970 case Oregon v. Mitchell. The Court held that although the act could properly lower the voting age for federal elections, the act could not require states to lower the voting age for local elections. As a result of this decision, states would have been faced with the unappealing and costly burden of maintaining separate voting procedures for federal and local elections. In order to eliminate this problem, a constitutional amendment was proposed on January 25, 1971. It was approved by the Senate on March 10, 1971, and by the House on March 23, 1971. It was then ratified by the required thirty-eight states in the fastest ratification process in U.S. history.

The decision to lower the voting age to eighteen was significant for several reasons. First, the decision indicated the belief that eighteen-year olds possessed the requisite emotional and mental maturity to participate in the electoral process. Additionally, passage of the amendment indicated an acceptance of the argument that if eighteen-year olds were old enough to fight in war and were old enough to be held to adult standards for criminal punishment, they should also be considered old enough to cast a vote. Finally, passage of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment caused the age of majority (the age at which one is considered a legal adult) to be lowered to eighteen for many other purposes.

See also: Baby Boom Generation; Children's Rights; Law, Children and the; Youth Activism.


Briffault, Richard. 2002. "Review of The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, by Alexander Keyssar." Michigan Law Review 100 (May): 1506.

Cultice, Wendell W. 1992. Youth's Battle for the Ballot: A History of Voting Age in America. New York: Greenwood Press.

Keyssar, Alexander. 2000. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. New York: Basic Books.

Rogers, Donald W., ed. 1992. Voting and the Spirit of American Democracy: Essays on the History of Voting and Voting Rights in America. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press.

Scott, Elizabeth S. 2000. "The Legal Construction of Adolescence." Hofstra Law Review 29 (winter): 547.

Teitelbaum, Lee E. 1999. "Children's Rights and the Problem of Equal Respect." Hofstra Law Review 27 (summer): 799.

Amy L. Elson

Twenty-Sixth Amendment

views updated May 14 2018


The Twenty-sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads:

Section 1. 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.

Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

The Twenty-sixth Amendment was proposed on March 23, 1971, and ratified on July 1, 1971. The ratification period of 107 days was the shortest in U.S. history. The amendment, which lowered the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen, was passed quickly to avert potential problems in the 1972 elections.

The drive for lowering the voting age began with young people who had been drawn into the political arena by the vietnam war. Proponents argued that if eighteen-year-olds were old enough to be drafted into military service and sent into combat, they were also old enough to vote. This line of argument was not new. It had persuaded Georgia and Kentucky to lower the minimum voting age to eighteen during world war ii. The one flaw in the argument was that women were not drafted and were not allowed to serve in combat units if they enlisted in the armed forces.

Nevertheless, the drive for lowering the voting age gained momentum. In 1970 Congress passed a measure that lowered the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen in both federal and state elections (84 Stat. 314).

The U.S. Supreme Court, however, declared part of this measure unconstitutional in Oregon v. Mitchell, 400 U.S. 112, 91 S. Ct. 260, 27 L. Ed. 2d 272 (1970). The decision was closely divided. Four justices believed Congress had the constitutional authority to lower the voting age in all elections, four justices believed the opposite, and one justice, hugo l. black, concluded that Congress could lower the voting age by statute only in federal elections, not in state elections.

The Court's decision allowed eighteen-yearolds to vote in the 1972 presidential and congressional elections but left the states to decide if they wished to lower the voting age in their state elections. The potential for chaos was clear. Congress responded by proposing the Twenty-sixth Amendment, which required the states as well as the federal government to lower the voting age to eighteen.

Twenty-Sixth Amendment

views updated May 21 2018


Congress proposed the Twenty-Sixth Amendment on March 23, 1971. Ratification was completed in 107 days, the shortest time ever required to complete the amending process. The amendment standardized the voting age in all federal, state, and local elections at eighteen.

Under the Constitution the power to establish qualifications for voting in all elections was left to the states, except that the qualifications to vote for representatives in Congress (and, after the seventeenth amendment, for senators) had to be the same as those to vote for members of the most numerous branch of the state legislature. Under various amendments, voting rights could not constitutionally be denied or abridged on account of race, color, previous servitude, sex, or failure to pay taxes; the fourteenth amendment set twenty-one as the highest minimum age a state could require for voters. Before 1970 only four states had enacted a minimum voting age lower than twenty-one.

In the voting rights amendments of 1970, Congress purported to lower the voting age to eighteen for all elections. The Supreme Court, in oregon v. mitchell (1970), upheld the statute, insofar as it pertained to federal elections, under Article I, section 4, which authorizes Congress to regulate the time and manner of elections of its members; but the Court held the act unconstitutional insofar as it pertained to state elections. The decision threatened to throw the 1972 elections into chaos, because in most states the voting age for balloting for federal officials would have been different from the voting age for state races. The rapidity with which the amendment was ratified is attributable to a general desire to avoid such chaos.

Although Congress, in proposing the amendment, expressed confidence in the "idealism and concern and energy" the new voters would bring to the political system, the actual effect of the amendment has been less than revolutionary. Empirical studies have shown that eighteen-to-twenty-one-year-olds have the lowest voter turnout rate of any age group; and those who do vote do not differ markedly from the rest of the population concerning political parties or issues.

Dennis J. Mahoney

Twenty-sixth Amendment

views updated May 21 2018

Twenty-sixth Amendment

The Twenty-sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution , ratified July 1, 1971, gives young adults age eighteen and older the right to vote in state elections.

When the original Constitution was ratified in 1788, only white males over the age of twenty-one had the right to vote. Eighty-two years later that right was granted to African Americans, followed by women in 1920.

The Voting Rights Act of 1970 set eighteen as the minimum voting age for both federal and state elections. The Supreme Court ruled that the Voting Rights Act applied only to federal elections, and that the power of Congress did not extend to other elections. This ruling meant that the government would have to maintain two sets of registration books and run separate election systems for federal elections and any other elections. The expense to do so would be exorbitant.

Congress reacted by adopting the Twenty-sixth Amendment, and the states ratified it without hesitation.