Amendment Twenty-six to the Constitution was ratified on July 1, 1971. It lowered the voting age for all Americans to eighteen years, having previously been twenty-one years for the longest time. The official text is written as such:
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.
The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
At the time of its enactment, Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment established protections for the right to vote, specifically for the “male inhabitants of the state, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States.” The earliest calls for lowering the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen emerged in the 1940s, with Congressional proposals being endorsed by First Lady Elanor Roosevelt. Dwight D. Eisenhower publicly supported lowering the voting age in his 1954 State of the Union address, and in so doing became the first president to endorse the proposal. Later in the 1960s and early 1970s, the increasing public opposition to the Vietnam War renewed debates over lowering the right to vote. The age for the U.S. military’s draft was set at eighteen years, leading to many conscripted citizens being effectively ordered to fight in a conflict that they had no political authority to vote on the country’s involvement in. Many individuals and groups who were in favor of lowering the voting age argued that if a citizen was old enough to serve the country in the military, then they should be able to have the right to vote at the same age, hence the slogan “old enough to fight, old enough to vote.” At the same time, the increasing number of young American men and women graduating high school, going to college, and engaging in political and social activism led to an increasing national awareness of the process of crafting laws and Constitutional amendments.
In light of the increasing calls for lowering the voting age, President Richard Nixon added a provision to do so in the 1970 extensions of the Voting Rights Act. This new act of Congress was challenged in the Supreme Court case of Oregon v. Mitchell, where it was determined that Congress has the authority to lower the voting age for federal elections, but not for state elections. A proposed amendment to have the voting age lowered for all levels of government was proposed and passed by both chambers of Congress in March 1971. After being sent out to the states for ratification, the new amendment – now recognized as the Twenty-sixth – was ratified on July 1, 1971. The Twenty-sixth Amendment has faced a few legal challenges in the decades since its ratification, with the general arguments ranging from how a college student from out-of-town is represented at the polls, if the amendment extends any other political institutions such as serving on a jury, or if voter identification laws are valid and recognized beneath it. On its own, the Twenty-sixth Amendment addressed one of the larger domestic controversies that had emerged amid the Cold War. The question of a citizen being old enough to fight and vote was asked, and it was answered.
Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum