What Was the 26th Amendment?

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  • 0:02 Background Information
  • 1:25 Setting the Stage for…
  • 4:43 Adoption and Ratification
  • 6:15 Effects of the Amendment
  • 7:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rita Kerrigan

Rita has taught elementary and middle school and has a master's degree in reading education.

The 26th Amendment was passed in 1971, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. In this lesson, learn about what led to the creation of this amendment, the fight to get it ratified and its ratification.

Background Information

Fifteen, nineteen, twenty-six. What do these three numbers have in common? They represent the numbers of three very important voting amendments to the United States Constitution. These changes to the Constitution occurred over a span of 100 years, culminating with the passing of the 26th Amendment in 1971. This amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.

It followed in the footsteps of the 15th Amendment, which gave African-American men the right to vote in 1870, and the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in 1920. It only took three months from the proposal of the 26th Amendment until ratification from the states, causing it to be the fastest amendment to ever be ratified in the United States. Although ratified in 1971, the 26th Amendment's origins began during World War II when the minimum draft age was lowered to 18.

The debate over voting age became stronger during the Vietnam War due to the frequent drafting of men to serve their country who were not considered old enough to have a voice through voting. To many, it seemed unfair that men could fight a war without having the right to vote!

Setting the Stage for the 26th Amendment

The slogan 'Old Enough to Fight, Old Enough to Vote' was first heard during World War II, and the meaning behind it caused West Virginia Congressman Jennings Randolph to propose an amendment that would lower the voting age to 18. Although there was some support for his proposal from the states, such as Georgia's lowering of the voting age to 18 in state and local elections in 1943, there was not enough of a backing present to pass it. Years later, student activists protesting the Vietnam War reignited this slogan, and in 1971, a persistent Randolph reintroduced his proposal for the eleventh time. Unsurprisingly, the proposal passed easily due to the extreme pressure that the student activists had vocally put on Congress during this war.

Despite questioning the authority of Congress to make decisions such as this, President Richard Nixon signed an extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that required the voting age to be 18 in all federal, state, and local elections. He stated, 'Despite my misgivings about the constitutionality of this one provision, I have signed the bill. I have directed the Attorney General to cooperate fully in expediting a swift court test of the constitutionality of the 18-year-old provision.'

After Nixon made this bill a law, there was a great deal of protest. People did not feel that the federal government could regulate state elections, and this conflict came to a head with the case of Oregon v. Mitchell in 1970.

During this case, the United States Supreme Court reviewed the constitutionality of this law. The Supreme Court was divided. Four justices believed that Congress did not have the right to regulate the voting age in state and local elections. Four other justices believed that Congress did not even have the right to do this in federal elections because the Constitution states that only the states can set voting qualifications. In the end, the Supreme Court declared the parts of the law that determined the voting ages for states unconstitutional.

Justice Hugo Black wrote the majority decision for this case and said, 'I would hold that Congress has exceeded its powers in attempting to lower the voting age in state and local elections.' This ruling meant that the law could only apply to federal elections, so 18-20-year-olds would be able to vote for president and vice president but not for state officials that were up for election at the same time. As you can imagine, this made voting quite complicated because the ballots would have to be different depending on the age of the voter. This unideal situation, along with the extreme dissatisfaction in the country that an 18-year-old could be drafted to fight but unable to voice an opinion in politics, built support for a constitutional amendment that would set 18 as the standard voting age in all elections.

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