July 1, 1971 marks the day the 26th Amendment was ratified by the states, lowering the voting age in America from 21 to 18. This opened the door for future generations of young Americans to exercise the right to vote.
Beginning during World War II and escalating with the controversial Vietnam War, young voting rights activists challenged the unjustness of conscripting 18–20 year-olds to fight for their country while denying them the right to vote. In response, Congress passed, with overwhelming support, a constitutional amendment to lower the voting age from 21 to 18. It took just less than four months — the shortest period of time for any amendment in U.S. history — for the requisite three-fourths of state legislatures to ratify what became the 26th Amendment.
While this Amendment opened the door, millions of young Americans still have not crossed the threshold. According to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, youth voter registration rates are consistently much lower than older age groups’ rates. But once young voters register, they turn out at about the same rate as older age groups. This suggests that one way of increasing youth participation is simply to get more young voters registered.
The potential power of young voters is evident. In the 2008 and 2012 elections, young voters were a chief factor helping to deliver victories to President Obama in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. And by 2015, young voters under age 30 are expected to comprise approximately one-third of all citizens eligible to vote. If all of those young voters are on the rolls, their voices would become all the more powerful.
One strategy to address the lower registration rate among young Americans is by modernizing the voter registration process. Increasingly, lawmakers and election officials recognize the need to meet voters where they are: online. This is especially so for young Americans. Today, some of their primary vehicles for receiving news, engaging with politics, and sharing information are social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. That means online platforms for voter registration hold significant promise.
Some election officials are taking advantage of this trend. Since 2012, at least ten states implemented or enacted legislation for online voter registration. Online registration proved especially popular with young voters: in California, for example, nearly one-third of online registrants were under the age of 25. And more states will follow. Another online registration bill that passed in Illinois awaits the Governor’s expected signature.
In addition, many states this legislative cycle also introduced laws to permit pre-registration of 16 and 17 year-olds. Pre-registration ensures that young voters have an equal opportunity to quickly and conveniently register to vote while visiting the DMV for a driver’s license — just as citizens 18 and older do now. It also encourages younger voters to get invested in democracy at an early age. In 2013, Colorado passed a bill allowing pre-registration at age 16. At least eleven other states considered similar bills this past session.
Ironically, the anniversary of the 26th Amendment comes just six days after the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Shelby County v. Holder to sweep away a core provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, widely touted as one of the most effective pieces of civil rights legislation in our nation’s history. Given this devastating setback, there is now even more urgency to advance voter registration and election administration reforms to help safeguard the right to vote. Online registration and pre-registration are steps in the right direction. Continued efforts by lawmakers to streamline the registration process will bring young voters all the closer to realizing the full potential of their voting power.