“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.”
Fifty years ago, Congress passed the 26th Amendment to formally eliminate age discrimination in elections and lower the voting age to 18. This amendment enfranchised 11 million 18-to-20-year-olds, marking a victory for activists who had fought for at least three decades to expand the electorate.
It’s fitting that we recognize the 50th anniversary of the 26th Amendment in 2021—a year in which we’re celebrating the millions of young people engaged in civic life across the country, while also standing united against anti-democratic efforts to suppress and silence their voices.
Just as we’ve witnessed a year of youth-led mutual aid, racial justice protests, and voter turnout efforts, young people in the 1960s and 1970s spearheaded conversations to redefine democratic inclusion and civic participation. Young activists made headlines and transformed their communities, from sit-ins and demonstrations against Jim Crow to protests against the Vietnam War to mobilizing against anti-LGBTQ discrimination.
And just as we’ve witnessed a year of voter suppression and civic censorship schemes, the wave of youth civic engagement during the civil rights era met backlash from people in power who feared the growing power of a rising generation.
Popularly remembered as a response to the lowering of the draft age (memorialized in the slogan “old enough to fight, old enough to vote”), the 26th Amendment was driven by youth activists and organizers. But its quick passage in 1971 was also the result of more dubious motives. Recognizing the power of youth in protests and civil disobedience of the 1960s, legislators quickly mobilized to lower the voting age in order to funnel young people into the electoral system and suppress their activism outside of it.
That fraught history carries through to the present, as the full promise of the 26th Amendment—the complete elimination of age discrimination in our democracy—remains unfulfilled. While youth turnout reached 55 percent in the 1972 presidential election, the 50 years since have seen a steady erosion of voting rights for all marginalized groups, including young people. Youth voter turnout remains lower than turnout in older age brackets because of discriminatory laws (such as age restrictions on vote-by-mail) and inequitable practices (such as resistance to putting polling places on college campuses and in other youth-centered spaces).
Today, states like Texas are actively introducing new barriers to democratic participation while attempting to silence classroom conversations about race and discrimination. After youth voter participation surged in 2020 and youth civic leadership flourished from classrooms to Capitols, state lawmakers in 2021 have introduced at least 389 voter suppression bills in 48 state legislatures and bills targeting history and civics in at least 22 states. This national effort to suppress civic participation and knowledge deliberately targets marginalized communities and the young, diverse, rising electorate who should be protected by the 26th Amendment.
CDF celebrates this monumental anniversary as well as the young leaders who strengthen our democracy at the ballot box and beyond. We also recommit to the full promise of the 26th Amendment as we work to end all forms of voter suppression, civic censorship, and racial discrimination that threaten our democracy.
Fifty years from now, we envision a country where first-time voters can easily register to vote and access comprehensive voter education, where every voter has an equal opportunity to cast their ballot, and where our classrooms are filled with students talking freely about the ongoing work to create a more perfect union that serves us all.
Rooted in our history in the civil rights movement, CDF will continue to fight to ensure that fifty years from now, we can celebrate a 2021 civic revitalization, built and led by young leaders who are standing up to finally fulfill the promise of the 26th Amendment.