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SPIGOLON: What has 26th Amendment wrought in 50 years?
Voting
A voter in the runoff election Aug. 11, 2020, at Oxford City Hall. - photo by Tom Spigolon

This is an opinion.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of ratification of the U.S. Constitution’s  26th Amendment that lowered the minimum voting age nationwide to 18 years old.

Two-thirds of the states were required to approve its addition to the Constitution and they did it in record time — the fastest a constitutional amendment had been approved.

In an environment of rapid social change amid an unpopular war, Congress approved and two-thirds of the states ratified the 26th Amendment on July 1, 1971 – less than four months after it was introduced. 

The minimum voting age was officially 18 and could not be altered or denied at any level of government in the U.S. 

What is interesting to me now is its impact in the half-century since its approval.

The spark for social change in this country was lit after World War II when young men between the ages of 18 and 21 were fighting and dying for their country but had no say in how it was run.

Post-World War II America also lit the spark for Black men of all ages who were effectively denied the right to vote and treated as second-class citizens despite them also serving in America’s two-front war in Europe and the Pacific — but that’s another story altogether.

Until President Richard Nixon abolished the draft in 1973, young men had little choice but to serve in the military. 

By the time the 26th Amendment was approved, America had fought one unpopular war in Korea and was in the midst of another in Southeast Asia.

Soldiers as young as 18 were bravely serving their country in a hostile, jungle-covered environment where they likely would come under gunfire or mortar attack from an unseen foe — leaving many either wounded or worse.

The impact immediately after the amendment’s ratification was the nomination of possibly the most liberal presidential nominee in history, George McGovern, in 1972.

Facing an uphill battle against Nixon, then a popular, pre-Watergate incumbent, McGovern lost in one of biggest election landslides in history.

But the amendment’s impact ultimately was to enfranchise young people and give them the right to choose elected leaders at all levels of government.

Their level of participation has fluctuated with each election. They also tend to vote at historically lower levels than other age groups — perhaps because they’re busy trying to go to school or get their first jobs?

Nevertheless, about half of all eligible voters ages 18 to 29 turned out to vote in the 2020 election, compared to 39% in 2016, according to information from the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.

And a nonpartisan group that studies voting and demographic trends, States of Change, projects that in 2024 millennials and Generation Z for the first time will represent a much larger share of eligible voters at nearly 45%.

By 2028, those two age groups will make up almost exactly half of eligible voters, and those born before 1964 will fall below a third of voters, States of Change predicted.

In recent years, there was debate — which typically seems to arise every few years — as to whether citizens as young as 18 should be helping to elect our leaders.

Recent discussion has thrown young people into the mix of those who will be disproportionately harmed by election law revisions in states like Georgia. 

One argument is that stricter residency requirements impede young people who move often for work or to go to school. 

Another is that stricter laws retard efforts to encourage voting and voter education on college campuses, or make it harder for them to cast ballots during early voting periods.

Courts also have generally upheld students’ right to vote despite use of temporary addresses, according to CNN.

Those on the other side of the debate say voters in the 18- to 21-year-old age group are easily influenced and “indoctrinated” by different ideologies being tossed around these days. 

Young people also are in the midst of learning about how the world operates “in theory” rather than from personal experience, the argument goes. 

They have not been exposed to the realities of being solely responsible for paying their bills, having to pay property taxes or dealing with raising children. They haven’t operated businesses, dealt with employees and been exposed to all that goes with keeping one operating in a rapidly changing environment.

It seems to me that, on balance, it’s been worth the social and political experiment that has been an 18-year-old’s right to vote. 

It may surprise many older voters but many young people are plugged in to the world around them — they know who the president is while being unsure who their congressman is, just like most Americans of all age groups.  

Some calls in recent years to lower the voting age to 16 apparently have not gained much traction — and rightly so. 

But now, just as in 1971, I believe if a person is old enough to fight and die for their country, they’re old enough to help select the next person who controls whether the U.S. enters yet another military conflict.

Tom Spigolon is news editor of The Covington News. He may be reached at tspigolon@covnews.com.