June 23, 2011 – Amendment XXVI of the United States Constitution – Guest Essayist: Andrew Langer, President of the Institute for Liberty
1: The right of citizens of the United States, who are 18 years of age or older, to vote, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age.
2: The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
The final (or, more accurately, most recent) amendment to the US Constitution is the 26th. It lowered the national voting age from 21 to 18 years of age.
The founders initially left it up to the several states to determine various eligibility requirements for voting. But following nearly a century of reform, including the passage of the 19th Amendment ensuring suffrage for women and various civil rights laws operating under the auspices of the 14th amendment, national leaders began to grapple with pressure to lower the overall voting age nationally from the generally-accepted 21 to 18.
President Eisenhower was the first chief executive to publicly support such a move, but Congress’ attempts to nationally require states to do so were met with constitutional opposition from the Supreme Court. The High Court found that Congress had exceeded its authority under the Constitution, and that amending the Constitution would be required.
Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t simply the anti-war movement that was pressuring national leaders to lower the voting age. Young adults from all walks of life, who had already assumed the full mantle of adulthood (marriage, children, sole self-support, etc), were eager to ensure that they had a voice in public policy. But it was the anti-war movement that captured the popular sentiment, with the concept that “if I’m old enough to be drafted to fight for my country, I ought to be able to vote those policies facing my country.”
The issue of the draft isn’t a small one, either. The fact that young men were facing the possibility of involuntarily putting themselves in harm’s way is a compelling justification for allowing these same young men a voice in their own futures.
By 1971, the White House had become a champion of the push to lower the voting age as well—which, given the ire the anti-war movement felt towards the Nixon administration, was nothing short of ironic. In fact, in one of the oddest instances of changing places, The New York Times, incapable of seeing anything good coming from the Nixon White House, came out in opposition to the lowered voting age—stating that young people were simply too immature intellectually to be good voters.
But the proposed amendment did pass Congress, and Nixon signed it in March of 1971. The amendment rocketed through state legislatures, and by July 1 it had been ratified.
The force and effect, however, has been somewhat limited. Rates of voting for the 18-21 year old segment of the population was at its highest for the 1972 election. After that, even considering important contributions in the 1984, 1996, and 2008 Presidential elections, voter turnout among this demographic has remained tremendously low. Despite this fact, there are some calling for lowering the voting age even more—to 16!
It is doubtful that this will happen, given a host of factors—including one trend that has run parallel through the 40 year history of the under-21 vote.
While there may have been some justification in the late-1960s and early-1970s for lowering the age due to the factors facing a disenfranchised segment of the population, those factors have continued to shift. Not only do we have an all-volunteer military, wherein nobody is forced to join without their own-free choice, but the age we consider “adult” today continues to increase.
Currently, for instance, we have the greatest percentage of individuals under 30 living in their parents’ homes. Few have families, fewer own homes. It has become acceptable to consider adolescence to extend well-beyond age 18, and some believe it to extend beyond 30 years of age!
This belief became enshrined now in federal public policy as well. One of the central issues in Obamacare is the mandate to health insurance companies that they allow parents to put their children on their insurance plans up to the age of 26. I believe such a consideration would have been unthinkable in the era when the 26th Amendment was being considered.
Nobody is suggesting that the voting age be raised again—though many believe that young people do squander their franchise rights. What is certain is that the 26th Amendment is illustrative of the idea that pressing issues of the day ought not drive the amendment process. Rarely does such tinkering with the founders’ vision produce the results that we want.
 This organization, the American Youth Rights Association, believes that voter turnout will increase, and that because young people may retain better knowledge of historical facts than the general population, that they will be a more informed segment of the voting electorate.
Andrew Langer is President of the Institute for Liberty http://www.instituteforliberty.org/