The 26th Amendment at 45: Bringing More Voters to the Fight for Reproductive Rights

Image of a button showing support for a lower voting age from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

When the question of same-sex marriage went before the Supreme Court in the summer of 2013, it was clear that millennials, the nation’s youngest adults, had already reached their verdict; 66 percent were in favor of recognizing it, putting them among the most supportive demographic groups in the U.S.

That same year, millennials were in the spotlight in another fight for social justice. Refusing to accept their university’s mishandling of sexual assault reports, two survivor activists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill fought back with federal complaints. Their activism turned up the pressure on their institution and evolved into the founding of the organization End Rape on Campus, or EROC, a networked movement against sexual assault that linked survivor activists and other advocates for change on college campuses throughout the U.S. Following EROC’s founding, supportive faculty formed Faculty Against Rape, or FAR, bringing the movement to more stakeholders in campus communities.

Young voters have the power to shape political futures.

Jennings Randolph, a Democratic member of Congress from 1933 to 1947 (and later a senator from 1958 to 1985), said the nation’s youth “possess a great social conscience, are perplexed by the injustices in the world and are anxious to rectify those ills.” With that faith in the collective power of young Americans, Randolph made it his mission, beginning in 1942, to introduce legislation that would lower the voting age to 18. Historically it had been 21. His hopes, though, would not be realized until decades later, in the 1970s.

The United States entered the 1970s bearing the toll of what became one of the longest and most unpopular wars in its history. By the time the Vietnam War ended in 1975, 2.5 million Americans had served in the conflict, a quarter of them because of the draft. More than 58,000 of them lost their lives.

The average age among G.I.s in Vietnam was only 19. That such a young military was being sent into harm’s way bred resentment among the war’s opponents, who asked why so many people should risk their lives at the bidding of policy makers they had no role in electing. The slogan “old enough to fight, old enough to vote” became a popular rallying cry in a movement to lower the voting age to 18.

Congress responded to growing demands for a lower voting age in 1971, with the passage of the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ensuring 18- to 20-year-old citizens that their eligibility to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State.” The amendment passed in March of that year, and it quickly made its way through the states for ratification. Arizona became the 29th state to ratify it, when it passed a house joint resolution on May 14, 1971, 45 years ago this week. Thirteen more states would go on to ratify it as well, surpassing the three-fourths majority required for President Nixon to sign it into law in July of that year.

Almost 200 years after the nation declared its independence from Britain, people who were 18 to 20 years old became the newest group to join the electorate — an electorate that had expanded, through years of popular pressure, to include women, Native Americans, African Americans, and others who had historically been barred from voting. For women, the right to vote was not secured until passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, and for Native Americans, not until passage of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924. For many African Americans, the 15th Amendment, which should have guaranteed African-American men the right to vote in 1870, was an empty promise until the passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1965. The VRA addressed barriers that had persisted after 1870 — and others that had been put in place after 1870 to effectively nullify the 15th Amendment.

These victories represented just a handful of the many voting restrictions that have been taken down since the nation’s founding. Besides limiting eligibility to white males, states employed a variety of other requirements to turn away the less wealthy, the less educated, and other “undesirables.” Among them were requirements that voters be taxpayers or property owners, or that they pass literacy tests, pay a fee to vote, or prove a minimum period of residence in their state.

So narrowly defined was the electorate in early U.S. history that elections from times past would look like signs of a failed state by today’s standards. In their recently published book People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy, Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols remind us how vastly different elections once looked:

Theodore Roosevelt won a massive landslide victory in the 1904 presidential election … with the votes of 15 percent of the adult population. That looks like nirvana compared to Thomas Jefferson’s overwhelming landslide reelection to the presidency a century earlier. Jefferson got a whopping 73 percent of the total vote that was cast in 1804 — impressive enough until one realizes it accounted for less than 3 percent of the nation’s population.

Although democratizing the vote has come a long way, it has never been a finished project. For example, long after the passage of the VRA and the 26th Amendment, work remained to ensure that people with disabilities would not be disenfranchised. Provisions in the VRA gave them some of their earliest protections, such as assistance for voters who were affected by blindness. But additional laws passed between 1984 and 2002 were needed to address other barriers like the accessibility of polling locations.

Today, voting rights are under threat as numerous states have subjected voters to stricter identification laws, even in the absence of compelling evidence that intentional voter misconduct — what they are purportedly meant to prevent — is anything but a negligible problem. Championed by Republicans, these voter ID laws suppress votes from groups that typically vote Democratic, including black and Latino voters. According to the ACLU, “As many as 25% of African American citizens of voting age do not have a government-issued photo ID, compared to only 8% of their white counterparts.” For transgender and gender-nonconforming citizens, voter ID laws can be even more problematic, since they rely on outdated notions of sex and gender as static aspects of a person’s identity.

Change can also come slowly, even with a constitutional amendment in place to give it fuel. After a turnout of 55.4 percent in 1972, in the first major election after the 26th Amendment was ratified, young voters’ participation in elections has gradually declined. That trend has been interrupted by occasional peaks, such as the 1992 and 2008 elections, which saw turnouts of 52 percent and 51 percent respectively, but young voters have consistently stood out for their low turnout relative to other age groups. Some of this can be attributed to the barriers that inexperienced and uninformed voters encounter, such as not knowing where to go to register to vote. It could also be because charismatic candidates who appeal to young voters, even 45 years after millions more of them were given the right to vote, are still unusual. Barack Obama, who was one of those unusual candidates, was responsible for that peak turnout in 2008, which made young voters the only segment of the electorate to show a statistically significant increase that year.

Regardless of how high or low the youth turnout is from election to election, it is critical that the elected know they are accountable to young voters, and that young voters have the power to shape political futures. It matters for the sake of democracy generally, but especially for reproductive justice. Young people are some of the greatest stakeholders in reproductive justice, especially when women between 20 and 24 have the highest rate of unintended pregnancies among all age groups; when 80 percent of sexual assault victims are under age 30 (and 44 percent under age 18); and when use of most contraceptives is highest among women in their teens and twenties.

Reproductive rights should be guaranteed, not subject to the vagaries of politics. Until that standard is realized, though, the politicos who use them as bargaining chips, wedge issues, or battlegrounds in a culture war should know that they may have to answer to those most affected by the lines they draw in the sand.

In Arizona, you can register to vote online through the Motor Vehicle Division’s website. You can also find out more about early voting, your district, and your representatives on our Election 101 webpage. Outside of Arizona, you can check out to register to vote in your state.