This year marks the 50th anniversary of a landmark reform in American democracy. In 1971, the nation approved the 26th Amendment – a change that allowed 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds the right to vote. The change went into effect after 3/4 of the states approved the measure. The amendment was first approved by the Congress in March 1971 and New York State approved the change on June 2, 1971 – 50 years ago this week.
The change came after decades of debate. The idea to lower the voting age started after President Franklin Roosevelt lowered the draft age to 18 as part of the World War II effort. The slogan “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote” was first used in 1941 and the proposal was supported by then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt but failed to pass the Congress.
States began to take up the measure: In 1943 and 1955 respectively, the Georgia and Kentucky legislatures passed measures to lower the voting age to 18. President Eisenhower, in his 1954 State of the Union address, became the first president to publicly support prohibiting age-based denials of suffrage for those 18 and older. But again, no action.
During the 1960s both Congress and the state legislatures came under increasing pressure to lower the minimum voting age from 21 to 18. The intensity level to support lowering the voting age grew as young adults clamored to obtain their full rights as adults.
College students’ activism came after their involvement in the campus Free Speech movement, as Freedom Riders and advocates for Civil Rights, and in reaction to the Vietnam War. It was the War that tipped the balance, a war in which many young men who were ineligible to vote were conscripted to fight yet lacked any means to influence the people sending them off to risk their lives.
Passage by Congress of an expansion of the Voting Rights Act in 1970, lowered the voting age to be 18 in all federal, state, and local elections. Subsequently, Oregon and Texas challenged the law in court, and the case came before the Supreme Court in 1970. By this time, four states had a minimum voting age below 21: Georgia, Kentucky, Alaska and Hawaii.
In its 1970 decision, the Supreme Court struck down the provisions that established 18 as the voting age in state and local elections. However, the Court upheld the provision establishing the voting age as 18 in federal elections.
The decision resulted in states being able to maintain 21 as the voting age in state and local elections, but being required to establish separate voter rolls so that voters between 18 and 21 years old could vote in federal elections.
It was that split decision that triggered the constitutional amendment.
In March of 1971, the Congress approved a constitutional amendment to guarantee the minimum voting age could not be higher than 18 anywhere in the nation. Having been passed, the proposed 26th Amendment was sent to the state legislatures for their consideration. Ratification was completed on July 1, 1971, after the amendment had been ratified by the required thirty-eight states. New York’s legislature approved the amendment 50 years ago this week, on June 2, 1971. Having been ratified by three-fourths of the states, the 26th Amendment became part of the Constitution.
Although the 26th Amendment passed faster than any other constitutional amendment, other barriers to young adults’ voting continued. New York’s state and federal courts overruled local elections officials’ actions that prohibited college students from voting from their campus addresses. But barriers continue to this day.
The most notable is to place polling sites off campus to make it harder for college students to vote. For example, in this past Presidential election, just 14 of the 238 colleges and universities had early voting polling places. There are over 1.2 million college students in New York (although not all are registered or are New York residents). Fourteen early voting polling sites is far too few.
Legislation currently under consideration in the state Legislature would require that all colleges and universities have at least one polling place if they have at least 300 college students registered to vote living on-campus.
Young adults are the least likely to vote. Part of solving that problem is education, in order to ensure that college students and other young adults better understand the system. Another solution is to make it easier for them to vote when they are registered. Requiring polling places on campuses is one way to make voting easier. A fitting way to commemorate New York’s 50th anniversary of ratifying the youth vote is to make it easier for college students to vote on their campuses.