The youth vote became a reality a generation ago due to the slogan — apt for Veterans’ Day (thanks, vets, for your gallant service) — due to a bumper-sticker slogan: “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote.” The most powerful argument swaying many voters was that those ages 18-20 could be drafted and sent to combat in Vietnam yet had no voice in deciding their fate. (My personal vote in favor was not connected to fear of being drafted, as I was classified 4-F — medically disqualified from military service.)
Passage of the 26th Amendment, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18, to its ratification by 3/4 of the States, took all of three months and eight days, from March 23 to July 1, fastest ever for a constitutional amendment. The Senate had passed the amendment 94-0 on March 10; the House followed suit on the 23rd, by 401-19.
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.
The first president to express support for the change was — bet you didn’t know this (I didn’t) — Dwight Eisenhower, in his 1954 State of the Union address to Congress, delivered Jan. 4. Herewith Ike’s suffrage proposal video (2:02):
My few remaining recommendations all relate to a basic right of our citizens — that of being represented in the decisions of the government.
I hope that the States will cooperate with the Congress in adopting uniform standards in their voting laws that will make it possible for our citizens in the armed forces overseas to vote. In the District of Columbia the time is long overdue for granting national suffrage to its citizens and also applying the principle of local self-government to the Nation’s Capital. I urge the Congress to move promptly in this direction and also to revise District revenue measures to provide needed public works improvements.
The people of Hawaii are ready for statehood. I renew my request for this legislation in order that Hawaii may elect its State officials and its representatives in Washington along with the rest of the country this fall.
For years our citizens between the ages of 18 and 21 have, in time of peril, been summoned to fight for America. They should participate in the political process that produces this fateful summons. I urge Congress to propose to the States a constitutional amendment permitting citizens to vote when they reach the age of 18.
Yikes, another GOP idea. And when I enthusiastically voted for ratification in 1971 while living in New York City I was motivated by two thoughts: (1) the “fight/vote” slogan; (2) that youth would turn out in epic numbers and defeat Richard Nixon’s bid for re-election.
Instead, in 1972 youth voters stayed home. But youth did not stay home in 2008 and 2012 and surely will be out in force come 2016. Census Bureau voter data show 48.5 percent age 18-24 voter turnout in 2008 but only 41.5 percent in 2012. Other election figures cover the larger 18-29 group: Obama carried this segment by 66-32 over John McCain in 2008 and 60-37 over Mitt Romney in 2012. His 18-29 bracket vote totals were 14.8 million in 2008 and 12.3 million in 2012.
The popular vote totals for 2008 and 2012, when set against the youth totals, shows its rising value to the Democrats: the 18-29 bracket accounted for 7.5 million of Obama’s 10 million margin over McCain, and in 2012 Obama’s 18-29 margin of 4.5 million exceeded by one million his 3.5 million total vote margin over Romney.
Ironically, two years after ratification of the 26th Amendment the main argument for lowering the voting age — that those eligible for being drafted into military service had a right to have a say — was eliminated with adoption of the All-Volunteer Force.
In a further irony, while two-thirds of World War II vets were draftees, two-thirds of Vietnam veterans were volunteers. Thus, Ike’s 1954 rationale had been substantially undermined by 1971. But the proportion of Vietnam volunteer service was virtually unknown to the voting public; widespread draft protests were common news, as volunteers silently enlisted. And thus in 1971 many voters, myself included, voted unaware of the shift.
Put simply, without the youth vote, Obama would likely not have won re-election in 2012. And America’s recovery from a single disastrous presidential term would be well underway. Instead, after nearly eight years under Obama we sink faster by the day, with four scary months remaining, and Hillary looming as his successor.
It is impossible to imagine the voting age being raised, though two years ago NRO’s Josh Gelernter suggested trading a rise in the voting age to 21 for a drop in the drinking age to 18. The kids might take the trade, in that many may care more about consuming alcohol at age 18 than voting. But despite young voters’ immense ignorance the Democrats, confident that the youth vote is theirs by a large margin, will oppose any effort to rise the voting age. As for voter literacy tests, southern racists used them to disenfranchise blacks; though not flatly prohibited by law there is no political prospect of imposing them, because the Democrats will stand with their base in opposing such a measure.
Thus, within two years of my foolish 1971 vote, my main reason for my choice was overtaken by events. The voting age remains 18, and will never be raised. And as a result, our most poorly informed voters increasingly will decide our elections.