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Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the 26th Amendment

Man and woman holding up letters that say "VOTE" against an outdoor backdrop

This blog was written by LWVUS Intern Katelyn Pramberger.

In 1971, the 26th amendment granted the right to vote to Americans 18 and older. This amendment is one in a series enacted to protect the right of every American to be represented in our government.

In a time when our voting rights are under attack, it's more important to reflect on these amendments than ever.

How the Vietnam War Shifted the Legal Voting Age

Prior to 1970, Americans had to be at least 21-years-old to vote in federal elections. Individual states were allowed to lower the voting age but were not pressured to do so.

Yet with the onset of the Vietnam War, the deaths of so many people who were not legally able to vote caused a cultural shift. There was immense pressure on Congress to expand suffrage to the people who were being allowed to fight and die on behalf of their country. The slogan "old enough to fight, old enough to vote" soon became popularized. In response, Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act of 1970, which lowered the voting age to 18 for all federal, state, and local elections.

Shortly after its passage, the act faced opposition in the form of the Supreme Court case Oregon v. Mitchell (1970), where the court ruled that while Congress could lower the voting age for federal elections, it could not do so for state and local elections.

To counter the ruling, Congress passed the 26th Amendment, lowering the voting age to 18 for all elections. This Amendment was ratified in less than four months -- the shortest ratification period of any Constitutional Amendment.

Where it Stands Today

Today, the 26th amendment is widely supported for several reasons, including:

  • It's widely believed that people 18+ are mature enough to vote, as they can hold most jobs and enroll in postsecondary education.
  • 18-year-olds hold almost all the responsibilities of a legal adult, including serving jury duty, making major medical decisions, and being eligible for Selective Service.
  • Many people value the perspective of the younger generation and believe they should be able to constructively take part in the world they live in.

The 26th Amendment from the Perspective of a First-Time Voter

As a 20-year-old, I was able to vote for the first time in the 2020 national election. This election was particularly important to me because of the divided state of the government and the nation as a whole. Due to COVID-19, I was unable to physically go to a voting booth, so I filled out an absentee ballot for my home state of New York.

I had waited for years to finally put my political knowledge to action, and this ballot gave me the opportunity to take part in something greater than myself: the democratic process.

At the age of 18, we are considered adults and treated as such. At this age, we develop our own ideologies and values, which we keep with us for the rest of our lives.

Being able to take part in something greater than myself, like an election, inspires me to do research and educate myself on the world around me. It encourages me to take a stance on my beliefs and reminds me that my ideas are valuable.

Today I celebrate the right of young adults to contribute to our democracy by voting. Expanding this right has made our government more representative of the people and of how much farther we can go by enacting reforms like the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

The journey towards the 26th Amendment taught us that all people who fight for our country, whether through the military or through education, health care, or other essential fields deserve to have their voices heard. And as a voter, I can promote that lesson through the ballot.