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Making Civics Real Workshop 2: Electoral Politics  
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The 26th Amendment and Youth Voting Rights
by Wynell Schamel

One effect of the Vietnam War on the United States was to lower the voting age to 18. Schamel, an education specialist at the Education Branch, National Archives and Records Administration, introduces the 26th Amendment.

The slogan "Old Enough to Fight, Old Enough to Vote" reflected the mood of both the public and its leaders when, in the midst of the Vietnam war, the right to vote was extended to 18 year olds. Codified as the 26th Amendment to the Constitution, the joint resolution was passed by Congress on March 23, 1971, and ratified by the states by July 1--more quickly than any other amendment in U.S. history.

Getting the resolution through Congress took a great deal longer than getting it ratified by the states. Beginning in 1942, Jennings Randolph of West Virginia introduced the resolution in every Congress through the 92nd in 1971. Real momentum toward the extension of the vote began after the negotiation of the peace accords for the Korean War, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower supported Randolph's proposal to extend the right to vote to those "old enough to fight and die for the United States." Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon added similar endorsements. It was not, however, until the pressure created by the antiwar movement of the 1960s intensified that Congress finally passed the Jennings proposal in 1971.

Legal developments during the 92nd Congress caused Congress to seek a constitutional amendment to lower the voting age. In 1970, Congress attempted to lower the voting age to 18 through legislation. That legislation was challenged in court in Oregon v. Mitchell. Because the Constitution gave states the power to establish most voting qualifications, the Supreme Court upheld the statute as it pertained to federal elections but declared the act unconstitutional insofar as it pertained to state elections. Since most of the states required voters to be 21 years of age, this decision would have necessitated separate ballots for federal and state races in the same election. With this complication unresolved, the Presidential election of 1972 would, no doubt, have been not only very expensive but also chaotic. According to Dennis J. Mahony, political science professor at California State University, San Bernardino, "The rapidity with which the Amendment was ratified is attributable to a general desire to avoid such chaos."

The Amending Process
In Article V of the Constitution, the founders described a process for amending the charter in such a way as to balance two conflicting goals. On the one hand, they wanted to devise a process easier to use than that employed under the Articles of Confederation. At the same time, they wanted to ensure a process that would work only when a strong consensus made it clearly necessary to change the Constitution.

With these opposing goals in mind, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 created an amendment process composed of two sets of alternatives. Congress could either propose amendments backed by two-thirds majority of both of its Houses or call a convention to propose amendments at the request of two-thirds of the state legislatures. Afterward, the proposed amendments had to be ratified by either three-fourths of the state legislatures or by conventions in three-fourths of the states. With this process, the Framers attempted to balance the need for adaptability with the desire for stable government.

Since 1789, when the process became the law of the land, more than 5,000 proposals to amend the Constitution have been introduced to Congress, but only 33 have ever received the necessary two-thirds vote of both Houses. Of these, only 27 have been ratified by three-fourths of the states. Change is possible but extremely difficult to enact, thereby meeting both goals of the founders.

Expansion of Voting Rights
At the time the Constitution was written, most eligible voters were white male landowners. Since then, voting rights have slowly expanded as a result of various amendments that abolished restrictions based on race, color, previous servitude, gender, or failure to pay taxes.

The 15th Amendment extended the vote to black males, the 19th removed barriers to the ballot for women, and the 24th abolished poll taxes. Although the 15th Amendment was adopted shortly after the Civil War, real freedom to vote was consistently denied to black Americans for decades through intimidation by violence, cheating at the ballot boxes, and legislated disenfranchisement in the form of poll taxes and literacy tests. Not until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s galvanized Congress into action to protect the voting rights of all U.S. citizens did black Americans truly enjoy the freedom to vote.

The story of the passage of the 19th Amendment relates a different suffrage struggle. First introduced at the Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention in 1848, the amendment opening the ballot box to women was not proposed in Congress until 1870. For almost 50 years, the battle to get the proposal approved by Congress was unsuccessful. With the outbreak of World War I, attention focused on the contributions women made to the war effort in the workplace. Afterward, women successfully argued that if they could work to defend the country, they also deserved the right to vote. Congress was persuaded to approve the amendment in 1919, and it was ratified on August 26, 1920.

The President's Role
The Constitution makes no provision for the President to take part in the amendment process. But in the case of the 26th Amendment, President Nixon held a ceremonial signing of the certified document on July 5, 1971, inviting three 18-year-olds to add their signatures below his. No doubt Nixon's decision to publicly endorse the amendment was based on the popularity of the action--indeed, all states had ratified the amendment by July 1--and the recognition that adoption of the amendment enabled approximately 11 million new voters to participate in the national elections of 1972.

Response of Young Citizens
Congressional leaders and others expressed great confidence in American youth during the debate over the 26th Amendment. Senator Randolph described Americans between the ages of 18 and 21 as "educated, motivated, and involved." Furthermore, he added, "Young people are aware of the world around them and are familiar with the issues before government officials. In many cases they have a clearer view because it has not become clouded through time and involvement. They can be likened to outside consultants called in to take a fresh look at our problems."

Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana observed, "The surest and most just way to harness the energies and moral conscience of youth is to open the door to full citizenship by lowering the voting age. Youth cannot be expected to work within the system when they are denied that very opportunity." Senator Bayh also proclaimed, "Passage of this amendment will challenge young Americans to accept even more responsibility and show that they will participate."

Many political observers at the time predicted that high numbers of young voters would register and vote, thereby having a profound effect on U.S. electoral politics. The fact is, however, that 18- to 20-year-olds have participated at a significantly lower rate than the general population in every election until the Presidential election of 1992.

Source: Social Education, Volume 60, Issue 6, October1996. Copyright 1996 National Council for the Social Studies

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