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Marching in Seattle to demand that the voting age be lowered, 1969

‘Old Enough to Vote’

Youth voter turnout surged in the 2020 election. A look back at how young people gained the right to vote 50 years ago.

Judy Lawrence was eager to turn 18 this past April so she could vote in the recent election.

“It’s always been something to look forward to,” she says. “The decisions that are being made will really affect us for the rest of our lives.”

Lawrence, a freshman at the University of Michigan, was part of a surge of young people who cast ballots in the 2020 presidential election. In an election that saw record turnout across the board, young voter turnout also increased, according to early estimates by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University. At least 53 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 voted in 2020. If that holds, it means a rise of at least 7 percentage points from the 2016 election.

Judy Lawrence was eager to turn 18 this past April so she could vote in the recent election.

“It’s always been something to look forward to,” she says. “The decisions that are being made will really affect us for the rest of our lives.”

Lawrence is a freshman at the University of Michigan. She was part of a wave of young people who cast ballots in the 2020 presidential election. The election saw record turnout across the board, according to early estimates by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University. And young voter turnout also increased. At least 53 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 voted in 2020. If that holds, it means a rise of at least 7 percentage points from the 2016 election.

Young people fought for years to gain the right to vote.

Young voters showed that they can be a powerful force in elections—50 years after the 26th Amendment was ratified, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18.

The amendment came about thanks to years of pressure from young people, whose calls to lower the voting age grew louder in the 1960s, at the height of the Vietnam War. As millions of young men—many of whom were under 21—were being conscripted to fight in the war, the slogan “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote” became a rallying cry.

“It was the idea that young men were being drafted to fight, and many of them were dying in Vietnam without having a right to vote for the politicians and government officials who put them there,” says historian Jennifer Frost, author of a forthcoming book about the 26th Amendment. “So, the thinking was, this was a tool that young people can use to press for the issues that they care about.”

It’s been 50 years since the 26th Amendment was ratified, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. In the most recent election, young voters showed that they can be a powerful force in elections.

The amendment came about thanks to years of pressure from young people. Their calls to lower the voting age grew louder in the 1960s, at the height of the Vietnam War. Millions of young men were being drafted to fight in the war. Many of them were under 21. At that time, the slogan “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote” became a rallying cry.

“It was the idea that young men were being drafted to fight, and many of them were dying in Vietnam without having a right to vote for the politicians and government officials who put them there,” says historian Jennifer Frost, author of a forthcoming book about the 26th Amendment. “So, the thinking was, this was a tool that young people can use to press for the issues that they care about.”

National Archives/AFP via Getty Images

A wounded Marine in Vietnam, 1968

Vietnam & Voting Rights

When the Framers of the U.S. Constitution wrote the nation’s founding document in 1787, they made no mention of voter qualifications. The Constitution left it up to the individual states to decide who could cast ballots in elections.

For the most part, states initially gave that right only to white men who owned land and were 21 or older. (The age 21 came from the British crown, which at the time of American independence, considered it the legal age of adulthood.) Black Americans, women, and other groups of people protested for decades to gain their right to vote (see timeline below).

The movement to lower the voting age is most often associated with the 1960s and the Vietnam War. But it actually began two decades earlier, during World War II (1939-45). When President Franklin D. Roosevelt lowered the military draft age from 21 to 18 in 1942, the slogan “old enough to fight, old enough to vote” first rang out. Later that year, the first bill to lower the voting age was introduced in Congress, though it didn’t garner much support.

It was during the Vietnam War that the movement to lower the voting age really picked up steam. Between 1965 and 1975, about 58,000 American soldiers would die in what ultimately was a failed attempt to beat back a Communist takeover of the Southeast Asian nation. As the war dragged on and became more unpopular in the latter half of the ’60s, protests erupted on college campuses nationwide.

At the same time, students were also at the forefront of the civil rights and the women’s rights movements. Yet many of the same people leading those marches, sit-ins, and boycotts had no say in electing the nation’s leaders. Calls to lower the voting age grew louder.

“The youth vote comes because of everything that happens in the ’60s,” Frost says, “the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, and the student movement.”

The Framers of the U.S. Constitution wrote the nation’s founding document in 1787. They didn’t make any mention of voter qualifications in it. Instead, the Constitution left it up to the individual states to decide who could cast ballots in elections.

For the most part, states initially gave that right only to white men who owned land and were 21 or older. The age 21 came from the British crown. At the time of American independence, England considered it the legal age of adulthood. Black Americans, women, and other groups of people protested for decades to gain their right to vote (see timeline below).

The movement to lower the voting age is most often linked to the 1960s and the Vietnam War. But it actually began two decades earlier, during World War II (1939-45). President Franklin D. Roosevelt lowered the military draft age from 21 to 18 in 1942. That’s when the slogan “old enough to fight, old enough to vote” first rang out. Later that year, the first bill to lower the voting age was introduced in Congress. But it didn’t gain much support.

It was during the Vietnam War that the movement to lower the voting age really picked up steam. Between 1965 and 1975, about 58,000 American soldiers would die in battle. This attempt to stop the Southeast Asian nation from falling into Communist control ultimately failed. Before that, the war dragged on and became more unpopular in the latter half of the ’60s. That gave way to protests that erupted on college campuses nationwide.

At the same time, students were also at the forefront of the civil rights and the women’s rights movements. Yet many of the same people leading those marches, sit-ins, and boycotts had no say in electing the nation’s leaders. Calls to lower the voting age grew louder.

“The youth vote comes because of everything that happens in the ’60s,” Frost says, “the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, and the student movement.”

‘Working Within the System’

Stuart Goldstein was 18 in 1969, when he began working with two other college students to try to persuade the New Jersey state legislature to lower the voting age. Their group, the Voting Age Coalition, recruited members on college campuses and traveled in carloads to the state capitol, where they would testify.

By then, four states—Georgia, Kentucky, Alaska, and Hawaii—had lowered the voting age. Still, Goldstein says, they were fighting “an uphill battle.” Many Americans believed that young people were too uninformed and immature to vote.

“The requirements for a good soldier and for a good voter are not the same,” a 1967 New York Times editorial read.

Many opponents of the youth vote also thought young people were too radical. They pointed to the news footage of civil rights protests and of long-haired college students taking over campus buildings and burning their draft cards to protest the war—not to mention Woodstock.

“People formed their opinions from what they saw on the news,” Goldstein says. “There were more people who were buying into this political argument that young people are bad and young people have too much to say, and there was a division between old and young.”

Stuart Goldstein was 18 in 1969. That year, he began working with two other college students to try to get the voting age lowered in New Jersey. Their group was called the Voting Age Coalition. They recruited members on college campuses. Together, they traveled in carloads to the state capitol to testify.

By then, four states—Georgia, Kentucky, Alaska, and Hawaii—had lowered the voting age. Still, Goldstein says, they were fighting “an uphill battle.” Many Americans believed that young people were too uninformed and immature to vote.

“The requirements for a good soldier and for a good voter are not the same,” a 1967 New York Times editorial read.

Many opponents of the youth vote also thought young people were too radical. They pointed to the news footage of civil rights protests. They also noted the long-haired college students taking over campus buildings and burning their draft cards to protest the war. And they mentioned Woodstock.

“People formed their opinions from what they saw on the news,” Goldstein says. “There were more people who were buying into this political argument that young people are bad and young people have too much to say, and there was a division between old and young.”

National Museum of American History

But Goldstein and other proponents of lowering the voting age argued that 18- to 20-year-olds were already fulfilling the responsibilities of citizenship: In addition to fighting in Vietnam, many were working and paying taxes, were married and had families, and were being treated as adults in criminal courts—so they deserved the right to vote.

Across the country, momentum for lowering the voting age was building. By 1970, students in more than a dozen other states were also working to lower the voting age.

While antiwar sentiment helped propel the movement forward, Frost says those who led the drive to lower the voting age decided to “work within the system” rather than defy it by burning draft cards and occupying school buildings.

“There are one or two marches for the youth vote,” she says, “but they don’t have many demonstrations. They lobby, they write letters, they sign petitions.”

But Goldstein and other supporters of lowering the voting age argued that 18- to 20-year-olds were already fulfilling the responsibilities of citizenship. They were fighting in Vietnam. Many of them were working and paying taxes. Others were married and had families. And some of them were being treated as adults in criminal courts. To Goldstein and other supporters, that was all proof that they deserved the right to vote.

Across the country, momentum for lowering the voting age was building. By 1970, students in more than a dozen other states were also working to lower the voting age.

Antiwar sentiment helped push the movement forward. The burning of draft cards and occupation of school buildings played a role. But Frost says that those who led the drive to lower the voting age decided to “work within the system.”

“There are one or two marches for the youth vote,” she says, “but they don’t have many demonstrations. They lobby, they write letters, they sign petitions.”

Gary Null/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

A “Get Out and Vote” booth at a rock concert in 1972

Congress Takes Action

Their demands eventually reached Washington, where they received bipartisan support—even among some conservative politicians who thought giving young people the vote might lead to their removal from office.

However, there were disagreements about how to do it. President Richard Nixon, a Republican, believed that because the states were responsible for setting voter qualifications, the only way to lower the voting age would be with a constitutional amendment, which must be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures.

But many liberal members of Congress thought the federal government could lower the voting age through legislative action. So, in 1970, Congress passed an extension to the Voting Rights Act of 1965—the landmark civil rights law that had outlawed racial discrimination at the polls. Included in their extension was a requirement that states lower their voting ages to 18.

Their demands eventually reached Washington, where they received bipartisan support. They even got the support of some conservative politicians who thought giving young people the vote might lead to their removal from office.

But there were disagreements about how to do it. The states were responsible for setting voter qualifications. President Richard Nixon, a Republican, believed that meant that the only way to lower the voting age would be with a constitutional amendment. That would require three-fourths of the state legislatures to pass it.

But many liberal members of Congress thought the federal government could lower the voting age through legislative action. So, in 1970, Congress passed an extension to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That landmark civil rights law had outlawed racial discrimination at the polls. A rule that states lower their voting ages to 18 was included in this new extension.

Young people proved that they can in fact influence elections.

Lawsuits immediately ensued, however, and on December 21, 1970, just days before 18-year-olds were set to get the vote, the Supreme Court issued a decision in the case Oregon v. Mitchell. The Court ruled 5-4 that 18-year-olds could vote in federal elections, but that Congress couldn’t force states to lower the voting age for local elections.

The result was that, in 47 states, someone who was 18 could vote for president and members of Congress, but not for governor, mayor, or any other local office. That would have required states to have two sets of ballots, voting rolls, and systems for voting. Even to the many politicians who opposed the youth vote, it now became apparent that the only solution to this chaos—and the added expenses that would come with it—would be a constitutional amendment lowering the voting age to 18 for all elections nationwide.

But lawsuits immediately ensued. On December 21, 1970, just days before 18-year-olds were set to get the vote, the Supreme Court issued a decision in the case Oregon v. Mitchell. The Court ruled 5-4 that 18-year-olds could vote in federal elections, but that Congress couldn’t force states to lower the voting age for local elections.

That meant that in 47 states someone who was 18 could vote for president and members of Congress, but not for governor, mayor, or any other local office. That would have required states to have two sets of ballots, voting rolls, and systems for voting. This would have led to added expenses. Even to the many politicians who opposed the youth vote, the solution was clear. There needed to be a constitutional amendment lowering the voting age to 18 for all elections nationwide.

Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Young voters on Election Day in Hollywood

A New Youth Wave?

So, on March 23, 1971, in less than two weeks and with little opposition, Congress passed the 26th Amendment. It was then ratified by the necessary 38 states (three-fourths) in just 100 days—a record time. Suddenly, 10 million more Americans had the right to vote.

“The country needs an infusion of new spirits from time to time,” President Nixon said at a ceremony celebrating the 26th Amendment. “As I stand here, I sense that we can have confidence that America’s new votes will provide what this country needs.”

Many people expected that in the 1972 presidential election, young voters were going to turn out in large numbers, with most supporting the antiwar Democratic candidate, George McGovern, over Nixon. But that’s not what happened. Fifty-two percent of voters age 18 to 24 showed up at the polls, compared with 68 percent of voters 25 and older, and Nixon was reelected in a landslide.

Young voter turnout was even lower in every election after that, and young people have consistently voted at a lower rate than older voters.

But in the midst of a pandemic and historic economic collapse, young voters made their voices heard in 2020. It’s too early to tell whether young people set a new record for turnout. But with 61 percent voting for Joe Biden, compared with 36 percent for Donald Trump, according to early estimates from CIRCLE, young people proved that they can in fact influence elections.

Why did youth voter turnout surge? Experts think one reason is that young people’s civic engagement has been rising. In recent years, students around the country have been at the forefront of climate marches, protests against gun violence, and antiracism demonstrations. And many young people are also politically active on social media.

Judy Lawrence, the University of Michigan freshman who voted for the first time in the fall, says she believes her generation views voting as an important aspect of civic engagement.

“I think the majority of us really do care about the government and politics,” she says. “My whole generation has this sentiment that voting is this really powerful thing, and that it’s a privilege to be able to do so.”

So, on March 23, 1971, in less than two weeks and with little opposition, Congress passed the 26th Amendment. It was then ratified by the necessary 38 states (three-fourths) in just 100 days. That timeframe set a record. Suddenly, 10 million more Americans had the right to vote.

“The country needs an infusion of new spirits from time to time,” President Nixon said at a ceremony celebrating the 26th Amendment. “As I stand here, I sense that we can have confidence that America’s new votes will provide what this country needs.”

Many people expected that young voters were going to turn out in large numbers during the 1972 presidential election. It was assumed that most of them would support the antiwar Democratic candidate, George McGovern, over Nixon. But that’s not what happened. Fifty-two percent of voters age 18 to 24 showed up at the polls, compared with 68 percent of voters 25 and older. Nixon was re-elected in a landslide.

Young voter turnout was even lower in every election after that. In fact, young people have consistently voted at a lower rate than older voters.

But in the midst of a pandemic and historic economic collapse, young voters made their voices heard in 2020. It’s too early to tell whether young people set a new record for turnout. But 61 percent of them voted for Joe Biden, compared with 36 percent for Donald Trump, according to early estimates from CIRCLE. In either case, young people proved that they can in fact influence elections.

Why did youth voter turnout surge? Experts think one reason is that young people’s civic engagement has been rising. In recent years, students around the country have been at the forefront of climate marches, protests against gun violence, and antiracism demonstrations. And many young people are also politically active on social media.

Judy Lawrence, the University of Michigan freshman who voted for the first time in the fall, says she believes her generation views voting as an important aspect of civic engagement.

“I think the majority of us really do care about the government and politics,” she says. “My whole generation has this sentiment that voting is this really powerful thing, and that it’s a privilege to be able to do so.”