Old enough to fight, old enough to vote. That was the battle cry that 50 years ago won 18-year-olds the right to vote. March 23 is the golden anniversary of the passage in the House of Representatives of the 26th Amendment, which extended the franchise to 11 million young Americans age 18 to 21, a significant historical event so overlooked that some call it “the forgotten amendment.”
It passed the Senate 94-0 on March 10 and the House 401-19 on March 23. Five states ratified it the same day, and by July 1, three-fourths or 38 states had weighed in, the fastest ratification of any constitutional amendment. On July 5, 1971, President Nixon held a signing ceremony at the White House. It was totally symbolic. Presidents have no role in affirming constitutional amendments. “He wanted to take credit for it,” says Les Francis, a youth voting rights activist at the time.
It was a time of widespread social upheaval, and the 18-year-old vote became emblematic of how to change the system from within. “Campuses were starting to be the center of dissent and the 18-year-old vote was a safe way to get involved,” Francis told the Daily Beast. First as a student and then working for the California Teachers Association and finally heading Project 18 for the NEA, Francis worked with the Youth Franchise Coalition, an array of groups that weren’t all young and weren’t all progressive. But together, they became the driving force behind the amendment’s passage.
“I was young, I was 26, and we didn’t have an effin’ idea of what we were doing. It was ‘try everything,’” Francis says. And to their surprise, they were pushing against an open door. The previous year, in 1970, an amendment authored by Senator Ted Kennedy and added to the re-authorization of the Voting Rights Act extended the vote to 18-year-olds.
When a first key vote revealed it would pass, The New York Times reported that the House galleries, packed with an unusually large number of young people, burst into applause, along with some members, and that Speaker John McCormack, who normally gaveled down such noise, allowed the demonstration to continue.
That joy was short-lived. The Supreme Court struck down the provision in a 5-4 vote, forcing activists to turn to the constitutional amendment route, an arduous path that older and supposedly wiser heads initially thought futile.
An early mention of the Youth Franchise Coalition (YFC) in a Christian Science Monitor piece noted, “Novices Attract Attention in Quest for U.S. Vote at 18.” At the time, the voting age in 46 of the 50 states was 21. It was 19 in Alaska and 20 in Hawaii, and in Kentucky and Georgia, it was 18. The article said, “When a group of political novices recently formed the Youth Franchise Coalition here [in Washington, D.C.], some seasoned observers snickered that another children’s crusade was enlisting volunteers.” The article went on to presciently conclude, “But the guffaws from Capitol Hill may soon be silenced.”
The Washington Post observed that the youth activists were politically inexperienced and looked “un-hip” in their gray-flannel suits while conservatives fretted that allowing teenagers to vote would result in a government led by “impetuous, long-haired kids who lacked adult judgment and experience.”
The 26th amendment reads simply:
The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.
The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Initial concerns that one party or the other might unduly benefit from the youth vote proved unfounded. In the elections immediately following passage of the amendment, young voters were evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, and most of the coverage of the 18 to 29 demographic group focused on their low turnout. That changed with the 2008 election of Barack Obama, when turnout of young voters was second only to 1972, when 55.4 percent turned out in the first election after 18-year-olds got the vote. Sixty-six percent of that youth vote went for Obama. In 2020, young voters delivered in key races, especially in Georgia, where they helped give the Senate majority to Democrats.
But in August 1980, religious conservative activist Paul Weyrich saw danger ahead. While rallying evangelicals to the candidacy of Ronald Reagan and away from the born-again Jimmy Carter, he told a gathering of evangelical Christians in Houston, “So many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome: good government. They want everybody to vote. I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people; they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
Weyrich—who founded much of the architecture for what was known then as the “New Right,” including the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority, and the American Legislative Exchange Council—said out loud what most Republicans have tried to keep quiet: that the fewer people who vote, the better it is for Republicans. “They took Weyrich’s argument and disguised it with concerns about election fraud and ballot security, but it’s the same principle,” says Francis.
And now they’re in overdrive because there’s a steady increase in younger voters for Democrats because the issue agenda of these voters is being addressed more by Democrats: college affordability, climate change and same sex marriage, to name three. “Republicans are going out of their way to offend younger voters, and they’re being ‘rewarded’ – so they’re making it harder for students to get absentee ballots and vote early, and that affects younger people as well as minority voters,” says Francis.
On this 50th anniversary of the 26th Amendment, the push to restrict voting rights boils down to political incentives, says Al Vanderklipp, a fellow at the Election Reformers Network who researched the 26th Amendment. “When a party realizes that they can feasibly hold power disproportionate to their actual support by selecting who is able to vote, once they are solidly in power, they see absolutely no reason to seek an expanded electorate,” Vanderklipp said.
Asked what he’d like people to take away from this anniversary, as a recent college grad himself, Vanderklipp said in an e-mail that while bipartisan action on a common-sense voting measure is still a “living memory,” it doesn’t happen by itself: “It takes boots on the ground, and a good deal of convincing lawmakers that reform is in their best interests, to drive actual change.”