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The 26th Amendment Turns 50 Amid Renewed Voter Suppression

Young people, enfranchised by the amendment 50 years ago, are among the targets of current legislation to make it harder to vote.

Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of the rati­fic­a­tion of the 26th Amend­ment, which gave the vote to Amer­ic­ans aged 18 to 21. It was the last seis­mic expan­sion to the fran­chise that we’ve seen in this coun­try. However, in the decades since, new barri­ers to voting have been erec­ted across the nation to suppress young voters. Urgent federal action, includ­ing the imme­di­ate passage of the For the People Act, is now needed to restore the prom­ise of the 26th Amend­ment and guar­an­tee youth suffrage.

The wind­ing road to rati­fic­a­tion

The story of the 26th Amend­ment stands out in Amer­ica’s consti­tu­tional history. Not only did the amend­ment receive near unan­im­ous bipar­tisan support across the coun­try, but the inter­play between grass­roots organ­iz­ing and legis­lat­ive polit­ics is one that can inform today’s fights for voting rights.

The path to the 26th Amend­ment began when Congress lowered the draft age to 18 during World War II, and the mantra of “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote” was popular­ized. West Virginia Demo­crat Jennings Randolph intro­duced the first proposal in 1943 based on the 15th and 19th Amend­ments, and he contin­ued to spon­sor it over the decades as a member of both the House and Senate. While the amend­ment made little head­way in Congress, it was endorsed by lead­ers from both parties, includ­ing Pres­id­ents Eisen­hower, John­son, and Nixon.

By the late 1960s, amid the civil rights move­ment and protests against the Viet­nam War, student activ­ists at groups like Let Us Vote, the NAACP, and Common Cause organ­ized to support their own enfran­chise­ment. After decades of inac­tion, and look­ing to appease Amer­ica’s youth, Congress passed a law lower­ing the voting age to 18 for all elec­tions. But a 1970 Supreme Court ruling found that while Congress could lower the voting age in federal elec­tions by stat­ute, a consti­tu­tional amend­ment would be required to do so for state and local elec­tions nation­wide.

Sen. Randolph intro­duced his proposal once more, and the 26th Amend­ment swept through both cham­bers of Congress in March 1971. The amend­ment sprin­ted to rati­fic­a­tion, reach­ing the needed 38 states in a record 100 days.

There is no single factor respons­ible for the success of the 26th Amend­ment, but take away any one element — organ­izers on the ground, bipar­tisan commit­ment to the vote, a stead­fast cham­pion in the Senate — and we likely would not have achieved this demo­cratic mile­stone when we did. The story of youth suffrage, however, does not end in 1971.

Current efforts to suppress the youth vote

State lawmakers have long tried to make it harder for margin­al­ized groups to vote, espe­cially in the last decade. The most recent nation­wide voter suppres­sion campaign, spurred by false claims of fraud in the 2020 elec­tion, is rais­ing new barri­ers to the ballot box that fall partic­u­larly hard on communit­ies of color and young people.

These obstacles lead to lower youth turnout. For example, states have adop­ted restrict­ive voter ID laws that dispro­por­tion­ately burden young voters of color due in part to the finan­cial, time, and trans­port­a­tion costs of obtain­ing valid voter IDs. States have also adop­ted early resid­ency dead­lines that often disqual­ify one of the most mobile voting blocs. New Hamp­shire and Wiscon­sin have fought to restrict student voting by exclud­ing student IDs from being coun­ted as valid voter ID and making it nearly impossible for out-of-state students to estab­lish in-state resid­ency for voter regis­tra­tion. And in Flor­ida and New York, state lawmakers and elec­tion offi­cials have fought to keep polling loca­tions off college campuses.

Addi­tion­ally, three of the states that disen­fran­chise formerly incar­cer­ated people allow for the disen­fran­chise­ment of juven­iles. This leaves the door open for young people to lose their voting rights before they ever gain them. Suppress­ive policies like these place compoun­ded barri­ers onto young voters of color and dispro­por­tion­ately reduce the polit­ical power of their communit­ies.

Limits on mail voting make it harder for young people to vote in states that condi­tion eligib­il­ity for mail ballots on a voter’s age. This proved so egre­gious that a federal district court recog­nized Texas’ minimum mail voting age of 65 as a viol­a­tion of the 26th Amend­ment.

This year, after seeing record youth turnout in 2018 and 2020, state lawmakers are continu­ing the push to restrict student voting. At least nine bills have been intro­duced to do so, with nearly half coming from New Hamp­shire. These bills would gener­ally prohibit student IDs from qual­i­fy­ing as voter IDs and limit the abil­ity for students to register to vote on campus. One law limit­ing the abil­ity for student IDs to be used for voting has already been enacted in Montana.

The fight for youth suffrage contin­ues

While many states are moving to suppress the youth vote, others are elim­in­at­ing these barri­ers alto­gether. This year, at least 44 bills expand­ing student voting rights were intro­duced in state legis­latures, and a hand­ful were enacted into law. North Dakota will now allow public univer­sit­ies and colleges to issue a supple­mental docu­ment to satisfy the state’s voter ID require­ment. In Mary­land, public univer­sit­ies and colleges are now required to host on-campus polling loca­tions and insti­tu­tion­al­ize civic engage­ment. Virginia also expan­ded preregis­tra­tion this year, provid­ing young Virgini­ans with a seam­less trans­ition into the elect­or­ate once they reach voting age.

But these piece­meal improve­ments are not enough. This year’s massive effort to roll­back voting rights across the coun­try under­scores the need for federal action to protect all Amer­ic­ans’ right to vote, includ­ing young people. Last year, Rep. Chris Pappas (D-NH) intro­duced legis­la­tion that expli­citly defines viol­a­tions of the 26th Amend­ment and expands the protec­tions provided under the amend­ment. Pres­id­ent Biden has also called on Congress to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act, which would provide further safe­guards against the discrim­in­a­tion of young voters and people of color.

The For the People Act, a federal demo­cracy reform bill that has already passed the House and is before the Senate, would trans­form how young people parti­cip­ate in our demo­cracy. It includes key meas­ures that can make our demo­cracy more access­ible to young Amer­ic­ans, includ­ing online voter regis­tra­tion, Elec­tion Day regis­tra­tion, preregis­tra­tion for 16– and 17-year-olds, expand­ing state require­ments for early voting loca­tions to include college campuses, and requir­ing “campus vote coordin­at­ors” to provide elec­tion resources to students at higher educa­tion insti­tu­tions.

Young Amer­ic­ans have been cast­ing ballots for half a century now, but their abil­ity to fully parti­cip­ate in our demo­cracy has never been more precari­ous.

“The ballot is not just a piece of paper,” said Sen. Randolph upon passage of the 26th Amend­ment. “It is, in a sense, the exer­cise of free­dom, the exer­cise of respons­ib­il­ity. I believe the young adults of our nation . . . have a very real mission to perform in better­ing our coun­try.”

While today’s polit­ical climate stands in stark contrast to that of 1971, there are several unmis­tak­able simil­ar­it­ies between the story of the amend­ment and the fight to pass the For the People Act. From the bill’s import­ance for civil rights, to the swell of organ­iz­ing by the likes of Rev. William Barber and Stacy Abrams, to its broad bipar­tisan support among regu­lar Amer­ic­ans, this renewed push to solid­ify our demo­cracy rhymes with the history of our last great demo­cracy reform.

In celeb­rat­ing the 50th anniversary of the 26th Amend­ment, let us honor its legacy of expand­ing the fran­chise to young people by fight­ing for the Senate to pass the For the People Act and guar­an­tee­ing this free­dom for the next gener­a­tion of voters.