Photo above: President Richard Nixon. Courtesy National Archives. Right: Statue of Secretariat at Belmont Park, 2014, courtesy Wikipedia Commons.
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1971 - Detail
March 10, 1971 - The Senate approves a Constitutional Amendment, the 26th, that would lower the voting age from 21 to 18. House approval came on March 23. It was ratified by the states by June 30 and received certification by President Richard M. Nixon on July 5.
There had been a call for a change for decades, although the conflict in Vietnam had hastened the logic that had been the same throughout the war of the United States beginning with the revolution. If you could be drafted into the military at the age of eighteen, or serve prior to a draft, than why couldn't you vote. The first real effort to change the voting age began in 1941 as World War II raged in Europe and threatened the United States after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7. Senator Harley Kilgore of West Virginia advocated for a change in the 77th Congress with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt on his side. It did not pass. The effort began a slow climb into national prominence after the military draft age was reduced to eighteen by Congress on November 11, 1942. In 1943, the state of Georgia lowered its voting age to eighteen. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower stated in his State of the Union that the age should change. One year later, the state of Kentucky joined Georgia as the second state with a voting age of eighteen.
By 1970, four states had passed the right of eighteen year olds to vote; Alaska and Hawaii joining Georgia and Kentucky. On June 22, 1970, President Richard M. Nixon had signed an extension to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, adding in a codicil that reduced the voting age in all federal, state, and local elections to eighteen, despite the constitionality question over the wording of the 14th Amendment stating twenty-one.
Oregon vs Mitchell
Nixon was correct, it had constitutional problems, so when the states of Oregon and Texas challenged it, creating Oregon vs Mitchell which rose to the Supreme Court, the battle was on. In a 5-4 decision on December 21, 1970, the Supreme Court stated a split to the inclusion of the voting age debate in the Voting Rights Act extension. They agreed that Congress could change the voting age to eighteen for federal elections, but had no right to do so for state and local contests. This effectively would force states into maintaining two sets of voters rolls, if they chose to maintain twenty-one years of age for state and local elections.
To rectify that problem, the 26th amendment to the Constitution was proposed. It passed the Senate 94-0 and the House of Representatives 401-19. By July 1, three quarters of the states were stated to have ratified the amendment and four days later it was law. Who were the first states to rafity? Connecticut, Delaware, Minnesota, Tennessee, and Washington on March 23. Who was the last? South Dakota, forty-four years later, on March 4, 2014. Guess they'd been busy. Seven states still have not ratified the amendment; Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Utah.
Full Text, 26th Amendment
AMENDMENT REDUCING VOTING AGE TO 18
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.
What it Changed
The United States Constitution addressed the age of voters and rights of citizens in Amendment 14, Section 2, after the Civil War, which passed in 1868. Of course, as you'll see, it only applied to male citizens, and did not apply to Native Americans, because they were not taxed. It would also take the next amendment, the 15th, in 1870, to address the voting rights of non-white males.
14th Amendment to the Constitution, 1868
Section 1. - All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws....
Section 2. - Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice-President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.
Section 3. - No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.
Section 4 - The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.
Section 5. - The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
History of Who Could Vote and When
1787 - The United States Constitution does not address who is eligible to vote, leaving the decision up to each state. This usually meant that only white male property owners could vote. Until 1807, New Jersey allowed white female property owners to vote, but stripped them of that right in that year. Some local jurisdictions in northern states allowed women and non-white Americans to vote. Freed slaves could vote in four states.
1856 era - Property ownership for white males no longer a prohibition, although tax payment was required in five states. Several states removed the right of free blacks to vote during this period, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
1868 - 14th Amendment to the Constitution addresses the voting age requirement, stating that twenty-one year old white males must be allowed to vote.
1870 - 15th Amendment to the Constitution states that race, color, or previous servitude, shall not prohibit males from voting. Jim Crow laws would effectively curtail the implementation of this amendment with poll taxes and literacy tests in many states through 1910. Not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were these practices fully addressed and banned.
1920 - 19th Amendment to the Constitution states that sex shall not prohibit someone from their voting rights, thus extending voting rights to women in all states. The amendment had originally been proposed in 1878, in response to an unanimous Supreme Court decision in Minor v. Happersett that stated that the 14th Amendment did not extend the right to vote to women. Although it took forty-one years for the amendment to pass, some states and territories began extending voting rights to women almost immediately. Wyoming Territory (1869), Utah (1870), and the Washington Territory (1883) established women's suffrage in their constitutions.
Photo above: Seattle march for the right of 18 year olds to vote, 1969. Post-Intelligencer Collection, Museum of History and Industry. Courtesy nea.org. Photo below: "Move On" engraving by Thomas Nast in Harper's Weekly concerning Native American voting rights, 1871. Courtesy Library of Congress. Source info: Government-and-Constitution.org; Wikipedia Commons.