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The 26th Amendment Turns 45

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 power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Every election, candidates seek to crack the code that turns out the passionate, but unreliable, young voters. The effort nearly always results in handwringing and commentary about how younger voters do not participate in the democratic process. While those complaints are not necessarily wrong, it is easy to forget that 18-20 year-olds had no guaranteed right to vote only a few decades ago. With Independence Day upon us, we look back at an often overlooked bipartisan expansion of voting rights in this country.

The 26th Amendment is the fastest ratified amendment to the Constitution. But its passage required decades of dedication from citizens and politicians alike. Between 1942 and 1970, more than 150 similar resolutions went before Congress, but none of them gained traction. In fact, the strategy to lower the voting age did not always include a Constitutional amendment.

Senator Ted Kennedy expressed in 1970 the possibility of lowering the voting age via statute. The Supreme Court, in Katzenbach v. Morgan (1966), had sustained a federal statute that barred states from denying the vote to Americans of Puerto Rican origin who were literate in Spanish but not English. Katzenbach prompted some legal scholars to suggest that Congressional fact-finding could justify legislation to protect the voting rights of the class of people aged 18-20 under Section 5 of the 14th Amendment. Others refuted this argument, citing the 14th Amendment’s specific reference to a voting age of 21 and arguing that Katzenbach had “little apparent application to a restriction affecting all young Americans in 46 states.”

Amidst an unsettled constitutional debate, Congress decided to lower the national voting age in federal, state, and local elections statutorily, as an amendment to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. President Nixon signed the bill into law but recommended that Congress give 18-year-olds the vote through a Constitutional amendment

Later that year, just one month before the intended January 1, 1971 implementation date of a nationwide voting age, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress could set the voting age in national, but not state and local, elections. The Oregon v. Mitchell decision meant that some 18-20 year-olds were allowed to participate in national elections but not local and state contests. Congress realized the need to standardize the voting age and acted to give all 18-year-olds the vote by amendment. The amendment passed unanimously in the Senate and with a large majority in the House, receiving only 19 votes in opposition on March 23, 1971. The amendment was ratified by the requisite 38 states just 101 days after the joint resolution passed Congress.

President Nixon issued a statement commending the amendment text on June 30, 1971 and urged young people to exercise their new rights by registering and voting. He also stated that the quick ratification of the amendment was a testament to “our Nation’s confidence in its youth and its trust in their responsibility. It also reinforces our young people’s dedication to a system of government whose Constitution permits ordered change.”

Our democratic institutions work best when the largest number of Americans is engaged. Today’s youngest voters should take advantage of the 26th Amendment’s extension of the right to vote to all 18-20 year-olds. After 45 years, it remains a sometimes overlooked hallmark of bipartisan voting rights expansion.

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