June 12, 2012 – Essay #82 – Amendment XXVI, Section Two – Guest Essayist: Horace Cooper, Director of the Institute for Liberty’s Center for Law and Regulation, and a legal commentator
Section 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.
Section 2: The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
18-Year Olds Right to Vote
Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Perhaps one of the few instances where the issue of congressional power was litigated prior to passage of the amendment, section 2 of the 26th amendment has this distinction. Many Americans today do not realize that the debate over the minimum age to vote in the U.S. began during World War II and the issue continued to grow even as the War wound down. President Dwight Eisenhower was the first U.S. president to officially endorse lowering the voting age to 18. For most of its history, the U.S. had adopted 21 as the minimum age.
President Eisenhower, like a growing number of American policymakers, recognized a clear disparity between 18 year olds being old enough to fight for their country in war and yet they were not considered responsible enough to cast a vote in electing the representatives that could decide the policy. This sensible argument was powerful enough to persuade Georgia and Kentucky to lower the minimum voting age during World War II.
Unfortunately the process of state-by-state reform didn’t appear to be moving fast enough for its advocates. By the time of the Vietnam War, it had become increasingly clear that Congress had to take some action in this area. Between the budget pressures, anti-war efforts, and the need to rely on the draft, Washington policymakers determined that they should act affirmatively to lower the voting age.
Taking the lead nearly 20 years after serving as Vice-President to President Eisenhower, President Nixon agreed to sign a law that amended the Voting Rights Act to lower the voting age to 18 for all Federal, State, and local elections. There was a problem with this solution: it didn’t meet Supreme Court muster.
The act signed into law in 1970 was challenged in the federal courts. In Oregon v. Mitchell the Supreme Court declared that the Congress didn’t have the authority to set a minimum age requirement for voting in state and local elections.
President Nixon would then call upon Congress to adopt a Constitutional amendment to remedy the matter. It passed Congress in March 1971 and would set a record – 4 short months – as the fastest ratification of any of the amendments to the Constitution. By July, President Nixon would certify that the amendment had indeed been ratified.
Horace Cooper is a legal commentator and the Director of the Center for Law and Regulation at the Institute for Liberty