What is the 26th Amendment?

Eve Levinson, Rita Kerrigan
  • Author
    Eve Levinson

    Eve has her Bachelor's degree in history and Master's degree in education from the University of Pennsylvania. She was a classroom teacher for 5 years and an adjunct instructor at the collegiate level for 2 years.

  • Instructor
    Rita Kerrigan

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

What is the 26th Amendment? When was the 26th Amendment passed? Learn the 26th Amendment definition, its history, and its significance in American politics. Updated: 07/01/2021

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What is the 26th Amendment?

Voting is an essential American right—try to imagine soldiers being drafted to fight in a war they were too young to vote against! In 1971, the U.S. was fighting the Vietnam War and drafting boys as young as 18 to become soldiers. As a result of widespread protests, Congress voted unanimously to amend the Constitution by ratifying the 26th Amendment, defined as lowering the minimum voting age to 18 from 21 at the local, state, and federal levels. Though the law was largely motivated by military practices, it has since also allowed younger generations more broadly to have a voice in elections and political representation.

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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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A protest for lowering the voting age by the Berkeley chapter of the National Youth Rights Association.

A protest for lowering the voting age by the Berkeley chapter of the National Youth Rights Association.

What did the 26th Amendment do?

When the founders wrote the Constitution, they created a process by which the states could amend the document if needed. Through this process, new bills can eventually become part of the Constitution, after a lengthy examination to confirm that the proposed amendment has a broad enough level of support across the country. This full amendment process has happened 27 times in United States history.

The 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18 by giving the United States government the power to enforce a minimum voting age. Prior to its ratification, states were permitted to lower the constitutionally defined minimum voting age of 21, but they were not required to expand voting rights based on age.

26th Amendment Text

The 26th Amendment to the United States Constitution reads:

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.

Interpretations

With a divided Supreme Court decision in Oregon v. Mitchell (1970), the Supreme Court justices wrote majority and dissenting opinions on the subject of granting Congress the authority to lower the minimum voting age to 18. Though the majority ruled that Congress had the authority to expand voting rights for 18-20-year-olds in federal elections, the Court limited this power from being extended to state and local elections.

Further, in addition to the widely discussed motivation for the proposed constitutional amendment of soldiers serving in war from as young as 18, U.S. Senators also noted three reasons that demonstrated 18-20 year olds deserved voting rights:

  • By that age, many individuals have completed high school and likely have a level of civic education.
  • Individuals are also tasked with numerous adult responsibilities after the age of 18, including commitments based on signing contracts and going to war.
  • Finally, lowering the voting age would potentially encourage that age bracket to pursue peaceful methods to impacting the world (as opposed to the escalating protests against the Vietnam War).

Vietnam War Protest in Washington, D.C. by Frank Wolfe, October 21, 1967 (NARA)

Vietnam War Protest in Washington, D.C. by Frank Wolfe, October 21, 1967 (NARA)

26th Amendment: History and Ratification

The United States went through decades of debate over having boys aged 18-21 sent off to fight in World War II, the Korean War, and ultimately the Vietnam War, without having the right to vote for the politicians who were authorizing the conflicts. Then, in 1970, the Supreme Court of the United States came to a divided 5-4 decision over Oregon v. Mitchell, a case based on whether Congress or the states had authority over recently passed provisions in Voting Rights Act Amendments that included lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. As a result, the 26th Amendment was proposed, giving states the right to vote against the expansion of rights through the ratification process. The 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18, securing voting rights for those soldiers and their peers.

In 1971, the 26th Amendment was ratified in less than four months, the shortest time ever taken to complete this process.

Ratification Process

For a proposed amendment to be ratified, the bill must pass Congress with a two-thirds majority vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The bill is then sent to be combined into a joint resolution, which is distributed to the States.

After being received by the Governors and sent to the State Legislatures, the bill is then voted on in a state election. If three-fourths of the states, or 38 out of 50, vote to pass, the bill is ratified as a Constitutional Amendment.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What year did the voting age change from 21 to 18?

The voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 when the 26th Amendment was ratified by Congress and the States in 1971.

Why was the 26th Amendment passed?

Though Americans had debated lowering the voting age for decades, it was largely passed as a result of 18-20 year olds being sent off to fight the Vietnam War without having the ability to vote for those sending them. In addition, 18-20 year olds were deemed to have a basic level of education, a number of other adult responsibilities, and a need for positive and productive political outlets different from anti-war protests.

What does the 26th Amendment to the Constitution say?

The 26th Amendment to the Constitution says that neither the federal nor state governments may deny someone the right to vote based on age, effectively lowering the voting age from 21 to 18.

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