Teaching With Documents, Volume 2


The 26th Amendment and Youth Voting Rights

The slogan "Old Enough to Fight, Old Enough to Vote" reflected the mood of the public and its leaders when, in the midst of the Vietnam War, the right to vote was extended to 18-year-olds. Codified as the 26th Amendment to the Constitution, the joint resolution, passed by Congress on March 23, 1971, was ratified by the States by July 1-more quickly than any other amendment in U.S. history.

Getting the resolution through Congress took a great deal longer than getting it ratified by the States. Beginning in 1942, Jennings Randolph of West Virginia introduced the resolution in every Congress through the 92d in 1971. Real momentum toward the extension of the vote began after the negotiation of the peace accords for the Korean War, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower supported Randolph’s proposal to extend the right to vote to those "old enough to fight and die for the United States." Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon added similar endorsements. It was not, however, until the pressure created by the antiwar movement of the 1960s intensified that Congress finally passed the Jennings proposal in 1971.

Legal developments during the 92 d Congress caused legislators to seek a constitutional amendment to lower the voting age. In 1970 Congress attempted to lower the voting age to 18 through legislation. That legislation was challenged in court in Oregon v Mitchell. Because the Constitution gave states the power to establish most voting qualifications, the Supreme Court upheld the statute as it pertained to Federal elections but declared the act unconstitutional insofar as it pertained to state elections. Since most of the states required voters to be 21 years of age, this decision would have necessitated separate ballots for Federal and state races in the same election.

With this complication unresolved, the Presidential election of 1972 would, no doubt, have been not only very expensive but also chaotic. According to Dennis J. Mahony, political science professor at California State University San Bernardino, "The rapidity with which the Amendment was ratified is attributable to a general desire to avoid such chaos."


In Article V of the Constitution, the founders described a process for amending the charter in such a way as to balance two conflicting goals. On the one hand, they wanted to devise a process easier to use than that employed under the Articles of Confederation. At the same time, they wanted to ensure a process that would work only when a strong consensus made it clearly necessary to change the Constitution.

With these opposing goals in mind, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 created an amendment process composed of two sets of alternatives. Congress could either propose amendments backed by a two-thirds majority of both of its Houses or call a convention to propose amendments at the request of two-thirds of the state legislatures. Afterward, the proposed amendments had to be ratified by either three-fourths of the state legislatures or by conventions in three-fourths of the States. With this process, the Framers attempted to balance the need for adaptability with the desire for stable government.

Since 1789, when the process became the law of the land, more than 5,000 proposals to amend the Constitution have been introduced to Congress, but only 33 have ever received the necessary two-thirds vote of both Houses. Ofthese, only 27 have been ratified by three-fourths of the States. Change is possible but extremely difficult to enact, thereby meeting both goals of the founders.


At the time the Constitution was written, most eligible voters were white male land owners. Since then, voting rights have slowly expanded as a result of various amendments that abolished restrictions based on race, color, previous servitude, gender, or failure to pay taxes.

The 15th Amendment extended the vote to black males, the 19th removed barriers to the ballot for women, and the 24th abolished poll taxes. Although the 15th Amendment was adopted shortly after the Civil War, real freedom to vote was consistently denied to black Americans for decades through intimidation by violence, cheating at the ballot boxes, and legislated disfranchisement in the form of poll taxes and literacy tests. Not until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s galvanized Congress into action to protect the voting rights of all U.S. citizens did black Americans truly enjoy the freedom to vote.

The story of the passage of the 19th Amendment relates a different suffrage struggle. First introduced at the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention in 1848, the amendment opening the ballot box to women was not proposed in Congress until 1870. For almost 50 years, the battle to get the proposal approved by Congress was unsuccessful. With the outbreak of World War I, attention focused on the contributions women made to the war effort in the workplace. Afterward, women successfully argued that if they could work to defend the country, they also deserved the right to vote. Congress was persuaded to approve the amendment in 1919, and it was ratified on August 26, 1920.


The Constitution makes no provision for the President to take part in the amendment process, but in the case of the 26th Amendment, President Nixon held a ceremonial signing of the certified document on July 5, 1971, and invited three 18-year-olds to add their signatures below his. No doubt Nixon’s decision to publicly endorse the amendment was based on the popularity of the action-indeed, all the States had ratified the amendment by July 1-and the recognition that adoption of the amendment enabled approximately 11 million new voters to participate in the national elections of 1972.


Congressional leaders and others expressed great confidence in American youth during the debate over the 26th Amendment. Senator Randolph described Americans between the ages of 18 and 21 as "educated, motivated and involved." Furthermore, he added, "Young people are aware of the world around them and are familiar with the issues before government officials. In many cases they have a clearer view because it has not become clouded through time and involvement. They can be likened to outside consultants called in to take a fresh look at our problems."

Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana observed, "The surest and most just way to harness the energies and moral conscience of youth is to open the door to full citizenship by lowering the voting age. Youth cannot be expected to work within the system when they are denied that very opportunity." Senator Bayh also proclaimed, "Passage of this amendment will challenge young Americans to accept even more responsibility and show that they will participate."

Many political observers at the time predicted that high numbers of young voters would register and vote, thereby having a profound effect on U.S. electoral politics. The fact is, however, that 18- to 20-year-olds have participated at a significantly lower rate than the general population in every election until the Presidential election of 1992.

The document included with this article is found in the General Records of the U.S. Government,Record Group 11, Ratified Amendments. The document is also featured in a teaching package entitled The Constitution: Evolution of a Government with 34 other facsimile documents and an extensive teacher’s guide. For more information about the teaching package, write the Education Staff, National Archives and Records Administration, 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20408, or access the Digital Classroom at http://www.nara.gov./education.

Click the image to view a larger version


Document Analysis

1. Photocopy the document, and give a copy to each student. Make a transparency of the questions below and display it for the class with an overhead projector. After students have read the document, lead the class in oral responses to the questions. Questions to be considered might include: What type of document is this? What are the dates of the document? Who wrote the document? Who signed the document? What unique physical qualities does the document have? What is the purpose of the document? What evidence in the document helps you understand why it was written? What else do you need to know about the document?

2. Ask the class to read the document again carefully to determine what students learn about the amendment process from examining the text of the document. Next, ask them to consult a copy of the Constitution to verify the requirements for amending the Constitution. [Please note that the Constitution and the amendments can be accessed through the National Archives’ Web site at http://www.nara.gov/exhall.]


3. Assign students to research the history of the 26th Amendment and the time periods) involved in its adoption. Choose a storytelling method appropriate for the age and ability level of your students, and ask them to tell the story of the passage of the amendment. The story might begin with the first proposal in 1942 and conclude with the ceremonial signing in 1971.

Time line

4. Using this article, student textbooks, and other reference materials, ask students to help you compile a list of events related to the history of voting rights. Ask volunteers to make a time line and place the events on it. As a follow-up, ask all students to write a paper contrasting the struggle for suffrage for blacks, women, and youth.

Class Discussion

5. Lead the class in a discussion about the age of adulthood as related to draft registration, legal drinking, criminal accountability, and contract obligations and privileges. Ask students what responsibilities are associated with each of these adult activities. Determine if the class can reach a consensus on its definition of the best age of adult accountability.

6. Assign some students to research the voting patterns of youth since 1971 and report them to the class. Help students organize a voter registration drive among high school seniors in your school district and mount a campaign to encourage them to vote in the next Presidential election.


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Chicago: "The 26th Amendment and Youth Voting Rights," Teaching With Documents, Volume 2 in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. Wynell B. Schamel (Washington, D.C.: National Archives Trust Fund Board for the National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, 1998), 244–247. Original Sources, accessed August 2, 2021, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=G2GBWBXUVNXCXGN.

MLA: . "The 26th Amendment and Youth Voting Rights." Teaching With Documents, Volume 2, in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, edited by Wynell B. Schamel, Vol. 2, Washington, D.C., National Archives Trust Fund Board for the National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, 1998, pp. 244–247. Original Sources. 2 Aug. 2021. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=G2GBWBXUVNXCXGN.

Harvard: , 'The 26th Amendment and Youth Voting Rights' in Teaching With Documents, Volume 2. cited in 1998, Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. , National Archives Trust Fund Board for the National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, Washington, D.C., pp.244–247. Original Sources, retrieved 2 August 2021, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=G2GBWBXUVNXCXGN.