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Today in 1971, Sparking the Youth Vote

July 1, 1971 marks the anniversary of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. While this opened the door for young Americans to vote, voting reforms are still needed to fully realize youth’s voting power.

  • Lucy Zhou
July 1, 2013

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.

Photo from Your Voice Matters, Your Vote Matters: Register Now