The U.S. Constitution's Twenty-Sixth Amendment: Lowering the Voting Age

In the wake of a war, the Twenty-Sixth Amendment passed through the channels of government with surprising ease. The voting age was 21 until the ratification of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment in 1971, which lowered it to 18. What was the justification for this change?

The Vietnam War was probably the main reason for lowering the voting age. Young men became liable for the draft at age 18. “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote” was a slogan that became popular during that time.

In 1970, Congress passed a law lowering the minimum voting age to 18 for all elections, state and federal alike. The state of Oregon challenged the law’s constitutionality. In Oregon v. Mitchell, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress could set the voting age for federal elections but not for state and local elections.

This ruling was impractical. States wanting to leave the minimum voting age at 21 would have had to establish two voters’ rolls, one for federal elections and the other for state and local elections.

Congress therefore decided to short-circuit the court ruling by amending the Constitution. The result was the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, which was ratified on July 1, 1971.

The wording of the amendment is copied from that of the Fifteenth and Nineteenth amendments. The main part of it reads as follows:

The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.

The amendment was ratified in record time – just over three months from passing Congress to ratification by three-fourths of the states. The reason for this enthusiasm on the part of the states was no doubt because it saved the states from the muddle that would have resulted from an attempt to implement the Supreme Court ruling in Oregon v. Mitchell.

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