Sunday, July 5, 2020

Old Enough to Fight, Old Enough to Vote—The 26th Amendment

On July 5, 1971 the 26th Amendment which guaranteed 18 to 21 year old citizens the right to vote in all elections was officially added to the U.S. Constitution.  A Joint Congressional Resolution proposing the amendment had cleared both houses by March 23.  On July 1 North Carolina became the 38th state to ratify the amendment—the necessary three quarters of the states.  No other Constitutional amendment has come close to the speed in which the 26th Amendment was ratified—just 69 days.  On July 5 President Richard Nixon signed official certification of the amendment.
The idea of reducing the voting age had been kicked around since West Virginia Democratic Senator Harley Kilgore proposed it 1941 with the vocal support of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt when the Draft was beefing up the Army on the eve of America’s entry into World War II.  After the war began, the proposal was lost in the shuffle.  The Cold War and the very hot war in Korea revived interest, but most states signaled their opposition.  In his 1954 State of the Union address Dwight D. Eisenhower, became the first president to publicly support prohibiting age-based denials of suffrage for those 18 and older.  By 1955 just two states—Georgia and Kentucky had taken action to lower the voting age, mostly due to internal political issues.

Students march for the vote circa 1968.
But the Vietnam war, in which reluctant youth were being drafted in large numbers as cannon fodder because the government feared the political consequences of wide-spread mobilization of the National Guard and the Reserves, brought the issue to a head once more.  Promoted by a wave of student and anti-war activism demonstrations “Old Enough to Fight, Old Enough to Vote” became a powerful slogan.  The student uprisings, urban rioting, and the violent confrontations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention caused many political leaders of both parties to find some way of mollifying the street rage.
In 1970, Senator Ted Kennedy proposed amending the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to lower the voting age nationally.  On June 22, 1970, President but expressed his reservations in his signing statement. 
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.
Oregon and Texas challenged the law in court, and the case came before the Supreme Court in 1970 as Oregon v. Mitchell.  The Court struck down the provisions that established 18 as the voting age in state and local elections while upholding the extension of voting rights in Federal elections.  The decision resulted in states being able to maintain 21 as the voting age in state and local elections, but being required to establish separate voter rolls so that voters between 18 and 20 years old could vote in federal elections—a bureaucratic nightmare that threatened to cause chaos in the up-coming 1972 elections.

Indiana Senator Birch Bayh rushed a proposed Constitutional amendment through his sub-committee an on to adoption by the Senate.
Indiana Democratic Senator Birch Bayh, the chair of the Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments had been holding hearings on an amendment to lower the voting age since 1968. After Oregon v. Mitchell, Bayh surveyed election officials in 47 states and found that registering an estimated 10 million young people in a separate system for federal elections would cost approximately $20 million and concluded that most states could not change their state constitutions in time for the 1972 election, mandating national action to avoid “chaos and confusion” at the polls.  On March 2, 1971, Bayh's subcommittee and the House Judiciary Committee approved the proposed constitutional amendment.
The official Joint Resolution of Congress submitting the 26th Amendment to the states fro ratification
On March 10, 1971, the Senate voted 94–0 in favor of proposing the amendment and the House followed on March 23 by a vote of 401–19 in favor.
The proposed amendment read:
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.
On the very day the amendment was submitted by Congress Connecticut, Delaware, Minnesota, Tennessee, and Washington ratified it followed by Hawaii and Massachusetts the next day.  After that it was a scramble by the states to get on board, although some did so reluctantly feeling that they were being fiscally blackmailed into taking action.  Four additional states ratified it later in 1971 and South Dakota finally passed it in 2014. Seven states—Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Utah—have still not taken any action on the amendment.

Richard Nixon signed the Amendment as a witness surrounded by Congressional pages.
After signing as a witness to the certification of the amendment by the Administrator of General Services Robert Kunzig President Nixon said:
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 their own life.
But in fact Nixon feared that young voters would reject his re-election.  Democrats we hopeful that they would.  Neither was correct.  Many of the youth activists were disillusioned by electoral politics after the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the ’68 Democratic Convention debacle.  They failed for the most part to rally to Senator George McGovern’s candidacy the way many had for Kennedy or had “come clean for GeneMcCarthy.  McGovern accepted the nomination of a badly fractured and demoralized party and was star-crossed by disaster after disaster.  Nixon romped to reelection in and Electoral College landslide carrying all states but Massachusetts and claiming 60.7% of the popular vote.
In subsequent elections voters 21 and under consistently registered and voted in far lower numbers than older voters.  And polling showed that when they did vote, they were far from radical.  Most consistently reflected the political parties and choices of their parents.
The youth vote did occasionally affect local elections, especially in college towns like Madison, Wisconsin where they helped former student activist and avowed Socialist Paul R. Soglin get elected and re-elected as Mayor.  They also influenced hyper-local contests, especially in favor of school referendums.

A screen save from MTV's first Rock the Vote campaign in 1990.
Many attempts at mobilizing the youth vote have been made, most significantly MTV’s Rock the Vote Campaign that began in 1990.  But young voters did not have a significant influence until Barack Obama for whom they turned out strongly in 2008 and 2012.  But they largely failed to show up for Congressional off year elections contributing Democrats losing the House of Representatives.
Bernie Sanders’ 2016 primary campaign did mobilize many youth.  The failure of significant numbers of them to support Hillary Clinton in November has been blamed for her narrow loss to Donald Trump but in the end it was probably not the decisive cause of her defeat.  This year beyond a hard core of support, Sanders did not do so well among younger voters, many of whom spread their support among his rivals especially Elizabeth Warren.  They showed little enthusiasm for Joe Biden.  Can he get them to turn out for him in the fall?

Youth leaders if the March for Our Lives have extended their activism to Vote for Our Lives.
Probably, because young voters especially regard another four years as an existential threat.  The survivors of the 2018 Margery Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida organized the March for Our Lives movement and subsequent drive for youth voter registration.  Many climate change activists women’s groups have also backed action as have many Black Lives Matter marchers in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd and others.  Voter registration drives have been ramped up across the nation and many hope that the wide-spread adoption of vote-by-mail during the Coronavirus pandemic will also increase the youth vote.
That’s what Trump and his Republican enablers fear, which is why they are pouring millions of dollars into backing wide-spread voter suppression.
 Could this finally be the year when young voters finally live up to the full promise of the 26th Amendment?

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