1971: 18-Year-Olds Get the Vote: With the Vietnam War as a Backdrop, the 26th Amendment to the Constitution Towered the Voting Age from 21

By Liptak, Adam | New York Times Upfront, September 4, 2006 | Go to article overview

1971: 18-Year-Olds Get the Vote: With the Vietnam War as a Backdrop, the 26th Amendment to the Constitution Towered the Voting Age from 21


Liptak, Adam, New York Times Upfront


The explosive youth movement of the 1960s was born in the civil rights era and blossomed into a full-blown counterculture on college campuses and at music festivals like Woodstock in 1969. Young people believed they had a lot to say in the 1960s, but the voting age in those days was 21, and so one place they could not speak out was in the voting booth.

That changed 35 years ago this summer with the ratification of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18. There were many forces behind the change, but it's clear that the unpopular war in Vietnam helped make the case.

Between 1965 and 1973, millions of American soldiers--many of them under 21--were drafted or volunteered to fight in Vietnam. More than 50,000 died in what would turn out to be a failed effort to prevent a Communist takeover of the Southeast Asian country and its neighbors.

While "old enough to fight, old enough to vote" was one of the catch-phrases of the 1960s, the sentiment behind it had been expressed decades earlier during both World War II and the Korean War. But for many years there was opposition to lowering the voting age, including from The New York Times, which repeatedly argued against it. "The requirements for a good soldier and for a good voter are not the same," said a 1967 Times editorial. "For the soldier, youthful enthusiasm and physical endurance are of primary importance; for the voter, maturity of judgment far outweighs other qualifications."

But a growing youth movement started to chip away at that view. Young people had begun to assert themselves politically during the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, taking part in demonstrations against racial segregation and poverty. By mid-decade, America's continued involvement in Vietnam proved increasingly unpopular on college campuses, where students marched, held sit-ins, and occupied school buildings to protest the war and challenge authority.

SWIFT RATIFICATION

"Students are in rebellion around the country," Fred P. Graham wrote in a column for The Times in 1968. "These energies might better be funneled into political participation."

When the 26th Amendment was approved by the House of Representatives and Senate and sent to the state legislatures in March 1971, it rocketed into the Constitution at record speed: The required three quarters of the states ratified it in just 107 days.

Four days after Ohio provided the crucial 38th ratification vote, President Richard M. Nixon signed a document certifying the amendment at a White House ceremony, surrounded by teenage members of a choral group called Young Americans in Concert. Many of the group's members, along with 11 million others, had just gained the right to vote.

The clean-cut young singers around Nixon, dressed in blue blazers and crisp white shirts, looked nothing like the hippies and activists who were marching against the war.

But even the young people selected to visit the White House in 1971 acknowledged that it was a difficult time in the nation's history. A Times reporter asked David Van Dyke, a 17-year-old from New Jersey, whether he would cast his first vote for Nixon in the 1972 presidential election. "Depends on if we're out of Vietnam," he replied.

One of the reasons for the quick ratification of the 26th Amendment was that Congress had already approved lowering the voting age to 18 in 1970, partly in response to the Vietnam protests.

But the Supreme Court ruled later that year that the Congressional action applied only to federal elections, not to state elections. The 26th Amendment was meant to sort out the confusion and save the states the expense of having to run, in essence, two sets of elections, for younger and older voters.

Amending the Constitution, however, is much more complicated than passing legislation: The Founding Fathers simply didn't want it to be that easy to make changes to their work. …

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