Ask Civics 101: Why Is Our Voting Age 18?
We take it for granted that the voting age is 18 in the United States, but it hasn’t always been this way. We lowered that age from 21 in the seventies — so does that mean we could lower it again? Who gets to make that decision?
The constitution, that original document ratified in 1789, doesn’t say anything about how old someone had to be to vote, as it granted all powers to set voting requirements to the states.
The first time age was mentioned constitutionally was in 1868, in the second part of the 14th amendment, which granted citizenship and equal protection under the law to all Americans. Section 2 of it said any state that prevented any male citizen 21 or older from voting would be penalized by losing seats (and therefore electoral votes) in the house.
So even though voting requirements were left to the states to determine, the voting age was 21 in all of them.
Around the world, 21 was a common voting age. In fact, before World War II, almost every country required citizens to be 21 to vote. The first to buck the trend was Czechoslovakia in 1946, and they reduced it to 20 years. An interesting standout, before Ireland gained its independence in 1922, the voting age for men was 21, but it was 30 for women.
But in the U.S., while we didn’t lower the age to 18 nationally until 1971, there was a failed push from Congress and Eleanor Roosevelt to lower it in 1941. Remember, this was around the time that FDR lowered the draft age to 18, and thus began the famous rallying cry “old enough to fight, old enough to vote.”
In 1943, Georgia became the first state to pass legislation to reduce the voting age to 18, and Kentucky shortly thereafter.
How did we set 18 as the national standard, then? The short answer is the 60s. Young men drafted to fight in the Vietnam War paired with growing political activism among young Americans brought this issue to a head. Ted Kennedy proposed amending the voting rights act in 1970 to lower the age to 18 nationally, and Richard Nixon signed it the same year. But it took a ruling in the Supreme Court to make the amendment a possibility; Oregon v Mitchell in 1970.
Oregon was one of 17 states that refused to agree with the law Nixon signed, they said that that voting rights extension was unconstitutional. And the ruling is a little confusing; the court ruled 5-4 that federal elections, voting for president and the U.S. Congress, could be lowered to 18, but then it also ruled 5-4 that states are in charge of the voting age for state and local offices. It was a mess, but it propelled the movement to make an amendment. And it was fast. It’s the fastest path to ratification of an amendment in US history.
It came out of committee on March 2nd 1971, was voted for nearly unanimously in both houses, and was ratified on July 1st, adding 10 million new voters before the 1972 election, 50% of which voted.
Though 18 is the voting age in the U.S., there are a lot of little deviations the states make. A third of states allow 17 year-olds to vote in the Primaries if they’re going to be 18 by election day in November.
New Hampshire, by the way, does not do this. Several states allow you to register as early as 16, and there is a growing movement among young Americans to lower the voting age to 16. Representative Ayana Presley proposed an amendment to do just that last year. And while it failed, the arguments for it were that due to the internet, Americans are becoming politically active at a much earlier age.
Ask Civics 101 airs each Monday on NHPR during All Things Considered. Nick Capodice and Hannah McCarthy, hosts of the Civics 101 podcast, answer listeners' questions about civics in the lead-up to the Nov. 3 presidential election. Email them at Civics101@NHPR.org