It is a fundamental human need, to be heard. WHICH IS WHY WE SOMETIMES TALK IN ALL CAPS.
On a personal level, each of us needs that special someone to hear what we have to say. On a social level, each of us needs to get a word in edgewise at big holiday meal gatherings. On a societal level, each of us wants to have a say about who governs us and how. And some societies actually give us that say, by way of that crazy little thing called voting.
Seeing as how voting is fairly important in a democratic republic, it’s not all that surprising that a few of the Amendments to our Constitution have centered around that subject. Generally speaking, a series of Amendments over the past couple hundred years have expanded the number of people that are allowed to vote. The last of these was the 26th Amendment, ratified in 1971, which lowered the minimum voting age from 21 to 18 years.
As you may have read in the last blog post, the 27th Amendment took the longest amount of time to ratify after approval by Congress – over 200 years. The 26th Amendment took the least amount of time – about 4 months. What made this one such a slam dunk? As with so many things in life, it’s all about timing. The fundamental argument behind the 26th Amendment is “old enough to fight, old enough to vote”. That point of view originated in World War II, when President Roosevelt lowered the draft age to 18. It steadily gained momentum over the ensuing decades, but it wasn’t until the 1960’s that the United States was engaged in a war unpopular enough to move the needle: Vietnam.
Like many Amendments before it, Amendment 26 also grew out of a dispute between branches of the government, and between the federal government and the states. To address the “old enough to fight, old enough to vote” sentiment, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1970, which set the minimum voting age at 21 across the nation. But a number of states objected, and the case went to the Supreme Court under Oregon vs Mitchell, also in 1970. The Supreme Court subsequently ruled that Congress had the authority to set the minimum age for federal elections, but not for state and local elections. While this sounds like a partial victory for the states, it was really a complete defeat, because any state that wanted to keep the minimum voting age at 21 now had to run two sets of elections, and wastes of money like that don’t go over too well at home. And so when the 26th Amendment was approved by Congress, even states that didn’t like it fell in line rather quickly.
Let’s get back to that underlying sentiment behind the 26th Amendment for a moment: “old enough to fight, old enough to vote”. It appealed very viscerally during the Vietnam War, and it still does today. But there were and are valid arguments against that notion. The skills required to perform a narrow set of tasks during a battle are inarguably different from those required to make an informed decision about the political path of the nation. In fact, I found myself having trouble taking a side on this one as I researched it. So I figured I’d try something radical and think about what impact the 26th Amendment had via *me*.
I turned 18 in 1987, a year and a half before the next big round of elections, including that for the President. Did I bring a new point of view into my votes during those elections? The answer is a resounding no – I brought my parents’ points of view. They were staunchly Republican throughout my upbringing (my mother continuing that general sentiment after my father passed away just 3 days before my 18th birthday). And so, guess what, I was a Republican when I was 18. In fact, I was a Republican when I was 21.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit I did not get the full college experience. When my father passed, one of the countless repercussions was insufficient money to live on campus, and so I lived at home for my entire undergraduate education. I had a fairly small circle of friends as well, so there weren’t a whole lot of external pressures to change my point of view. But the bottom line is probably not all that different from a lot of other folks – 3 years of societally-defined adulthood is not necessarily enough time to shape your own new views on the world. In cases where it is enough time, other factors probably cause that shaping to be radically different from what you learned from your parents. So maybe half of us simply parrot what we were told and half of us go to the opposite extreme. And therefore the net effect of lowering the voting age is a complete wash.
Despite that unassailable steel cage of logic I just constructed for you, I still find myself in favor of the 26th Amendment:
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.
Why? Simple: “old enough to fight” can be reworded in any number of ways: old enough to be hit by a bus, old enough to contract a terminal disease, old enough to be struck by lightning… every one of us, as soon as reasonably practical, should have the chance to say how the world should be run, at least one time before we are unceremoniously ushered out of it.
Better early than never.