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The Twenty-sixth Amendment (Amendment XXVI) to the United States Constitution prohibits the states and the federal government from denying the right of US citizens, eighteen years of age or older, to vote on account of age. The drive to lower the voting age from 21 to 18 grew across the country during the 1960s, driven in large part by the broader student activism movement protesting the Vietnam War. The impetus for drafting an amendment to lower the voting age arose following the Supreme Court's decision in Oregon v. Mitchell, 400 U.S. 112 (1970), which held that Congress may set requirements for voting in federal elections, but not for state or local elections.
On March 23, 1971 a proposal to extend the right to vote to citizens eighteen years of age and older was adopted by both houses of Congress and sent to the states for ratification. The amendment became part of the Constitution on July 1, 1971, three months and eight days after the amendment was submitted to the states for ratification, making this amendment the quickest to be ratified.
Section 1. 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.
Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his 1954 State of the Union address, became the first president to publicly state his support for prohibiting age-based denials of suffrage for those 18 and older.
On June 22, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed an extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that required the voting age to be 18 in all federal, state, and local elections. In his statement on signing the extension, Nixon said:
Despite my misgivings about the constitutionality of this one provision, I have signed the bill. I have directed the Attorney General to cooperate fully in expediting a swift court test of the constitutionality of the 18-year-old provision.
Subsequently, Oregon and Texas challenged the law in court. In Oregon v. Mitchell, 400 U.S. 112 (1970), the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the parts of the law that required states to register 18-year-olds for state and local elections. Justice Hugo Black stated:
I would hold that Congress has exceeded its powers in attempting to lower the voting age in state and local elections.
This ruling meant that the law could only apply to federal elections, which meant states would have to have separate voting rolls for voters between 18 and 20 years old and special ballots for them to vote on federal races.
During the 1960s, both Congress and the state legislatures came under increasing pressure to lower the minimum voting age from 21 to 18. This was in large part due to the Vietnam War, in which many young men who were ineligible to vote were conscripted to fight in the war, thus lacking any means to influence the people sending them off to risk their lives. "Old enough to fight, old enough to vote," was a common slogan used by proponents of lowering the voting age. The slogan traced its roots to World War II, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt lowered the military draft age to eighteen.
On March 10, 1971, the Senate voted 94–0 in favor of proposing a Constitutional amendment to guarantee that the voting age could not be higher than 18. On March 23, 1971, the House of Representatives voted 401–19 in favor of the proposed amendment.
Having been passed by the 92nd Congress, the proposed Twenty-sixth Amendment was sent to the state legislatures for their consideration. Ratification was completed on July 1, 1971, after the amendment had been ratified by the following thirty-eight states:
Having been ratified by three-fourths of the States (38), the Twenty-sixth Amendment became part of the Constitution. On July 5, 1971, the Administrator of General Services, Robert Kunzig, certiﬁed its adoption. President Nixon and Julianne Jones, Joseph W. Loyd, Jr., and Paul S. Larimer of the "Young Americans in Concert" also signed the certificate as witnesses. During the signing ceremony, held in the East Room of the White House, Nixon talked about his confidence in the youth of America.
As I meet with this group today, I sense that we can have confidence that America’s new voters, America’s young generation, will provide what America needs as we approach our 200th birthday, not just strength and not just wealth but the “Spirit of ‘76’ a spirit of moral courage, a spirit of high idealism in which we believe in the American dream, but in which we realize that the American dream can never be fulfilled until every American has an equal chance to fulfill it in his own life.
The amendment was subsequently ratified by the following states, bringing the total number of ratifying states to forty-three:
No action has been taken on the amendment by the states of Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, or Utah.