Most Americans are familiar with the Fourth of July, our nation’s Independence Day celebrated annually with concerts, cookouts, and fireworks. But few people know about the other significant — if perpetually overshadowed — early-July American anniversary. July 1st was the 45th anniversary of the ratification of the 26th amendment, lowering the national voting age to 18. The amendment granted young Americans a fundamental civil right, but sadly, it is a right which today a majority of those young Americans ignore.
The ratification of the 26th amendment is notable for being the shortest ratification process in the history of the United States— it took all of 100 days. But the political fight to lower the voting age began over thirty years earlier, when President Roosevelt lowered the draft age to 18 years old during World War II. Campaigners gave birth to the phrase “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote!”, and several members of Congress introduced legislation to lower the voting age to 18.
The campaign got a boost when President Eisenhower expressed his support for lowering the voting age in his 1954 State of the Union address. The movement continued to gain allies in Congress and support throughout the country over the ensuing decade, and in 1965 Senator Ted Kennedy successfully lobbied for an 18-year-old voting provision to be included in the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
However, Kennedy’s provision was never implemented. It was challenged, and in 1970 the Supreme Court struck down the provision on the grounds that the Constitution does not give Congress the authority to regulate state and local elections. By this time, opposition to the Vietnam War had swelled, especially among young people, the the Court’s decision sparked rage across the country. There were student-led demonstrations, and the movement for a Constitutional amendment to overturn the Court’s decision began in earnest. In a matter of months, the 26th amendment was ratified. Young people, who had fought and died for their country since the Revolutionary War, had finally won this fight of their own. They secured suffrage for all young Americans for generations to come.
From there, however, the story sours, as the voting habits of young people have steadily atrophied ever since. In the 1972 election, the first in which 18-20 year olds could vote, over 50% of 18-24 year olds cast a ballot. By 2012, only about one in three 18-24 year olds voted, and barely 20% turned out for the 2014 midterms. It is almost as if some young voters have forgotten the 26th amendment exists.
The apathy of young voters plagues democracies everywhere, often with tremendous consequences. The most salient example is the UK referendum on EU membership. 73% of 18-24 year olds voted to remain, yet only an estimated 36% of them actually went to the polls cast a ballot. This has opened the leave campaign’s victory to criticism: Britain’s older generation chose a future that the younger generation does not want, yet the young have to live with that future the longest.
Yet young voters must place at least some blame on themselves. The two-thirds of 18 year olds in Britain who failed to cast a ballot are just as complicit in Brexit as the 17 million who actually voted in favor of leaving the EU. Brexit should be a wake-up call for us young people in the US. We must do something to address this crisis of apathy.
I am hesitant to suggest that voting should be mandatory, as such policies force uninformed citizens to make uninformed decisions. But extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures, so here is my proposal: the voting age would be lowered again, this time to 16. A newly-eligible voter’s first election, be it local, state, or federal, would be required for high school graduation, and all subsequent elections would remain voluntary.
Furthermore, each student would be required to write a school essay explaining their voting decisions before casting their first ballot. Such an arrangement would force first-time voters to consider all of the candidates and think critically about the issues that matter to them. The physical act of voting would also habituate students to vote starting at an early age. Much research has shown that after you vote once, you are far more likely to do it again in the future. This proposal, however crude, would do much to reignite energy around the 26th amendment and do justice to the men and women who fought hard to make it our reality.
Nonetheless, it is disappointing that mandatory first-time voting even seems necessary. I am ashamed to be part of a generation that regards the rights enshrined in the 26th amendment— and the democratic process whose inception we celebrate on Independence Day—with such stunning indifference. As you wrap up your Independence Day celebrations, take a moment to reflect on the history of the other anniversary happening this week. You do not deserve to enjoy the 4th of July if you do not also celebrate the 1st of July, and follow through with the festivities at the ballot box in November.
JACK HOSTAGER is a rising College sophomore from Dubuque, Iowa. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Hostager’s Take” appears every other Thursday.Comments powered by Disqus
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