How Young People Became Politically Powerful and Won the Vote

It took a long time, and a lot of activism. But the shift in public opinion wasn’t led by legislators or think tanks or journalists. It was led by young people.
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John Francis Polytechnic High School student Alma Valles, 18, gets congratulated by her government teacher after voting for the first time in Norwalk, California.

Photo by Mindy Schauer/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images

Throughout history, youth movements from all across the political spectrum have utilized a variety of tactics to become powerful and achieve real change. These movements, which follow the trajectory of the political journey we’ve begun, illustrate the necessity of being creative in order to subvert the status quo.

The campaign to lower the voting age to 18 from 21 is an example of young people becoming powerful and enacting sweeping and lasting systemic reform. We now interpret it is as a given that 18-year-olds can vote. But the critical reform did not happen until 1971.

Despite initial hesitancy, there was some limited local support for this idea. In 1942, West Virginia Democratic congressman Jennings Randolph introduced federal legislation to lower the voting age, the first time such an effort emerged on the national scene. Randolph based his support on a belief in the power and abilities of the country’s youth, declaring upon introducing legislation that young people “possess a great social conscience, are perplexed by the injustices in the world, and are anxious to rectify those ills.”

A year later, in 1943, Georgia became the first state in the country to lower the voting age to 18, but only for state and local elections. In Congress, Randolph did not have the widespread support needed to enact a national reform: Georgia remained an isolated event. Indeed, most people thought the idea was ludicrous and that 18-year-olds were not smart enough, or mature enough, to help decide the future of our democracy.

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The legislative action required to lower the voting age was daunting: It meant changing established law in every state in the country and ultimately amending the U.S. Constitution itself. How in the world could that ever happen?

After these initial successes, the campaign to lower the voting age began to gain real steam during the Vietnam War. The key difference between this moment and earlier pushes for change was that young people began to lead the movement.

Young people expressed fury that 18-year-olds could go to war to be killed but could not vote for the very public officials who were sending them to war through the mandatory draft. In 1968, more than 25,000 U.S. soldiers killed in Vietnam were under the age of 20. Not one of them could vote.

“Old enough to fight, old enough to vote” became the movement’s rallying cry. A national campaign started by young people called Project 18 aimed to catalyze the newly found momentum and messaging into a national movement.

But the young people leading the movement were often written off as naive youth, incapable of producing real change. The Washington Post wrote that the youth activists were politically inexperienced and looked decidedly “unhip” in their earnest “gray-flannel suits.” The Christian Science Monitor reported that political operatives cast them as “another children’s crusade enlisting volunteers.” Conservatives worried that lowering the voting age would hand over government to “impetuous, long-haired kids who lacked adult judgment and experience.”

This is rhetoric we see utilized today in describing any youth-led movement. “Seasoned” experts discounting youth activists is nothing new (and probably will never go away). That these young people pushed forward despite vehement opposition is also nothing new.

Young people changed this power justification, and the broader narrative, by convincing the public that they deserved the right to vote.

They deployed their own tactic toolkit to take effective action. Some youth engaged in wide petition drives in their states, encouraging state legislatures to pass laws giving 18-year-olds the right to vote. Others gathered en masse in the street, holding marches and demonstrations to alert lawmakers to the hypocrisy of drafting young people into the war while simultaneously restricting their right to vote.

Other young people wrote opinion articles in local and national newspapers in which they pointed out the moral urgency of lowering the voting age. Before long, the issue began to transform from an absurdity into a potential reality.

The activism began to produce a necessary change of opinion as the youth tactics began to persuade people of the validity of their cause. In June 1939, before the movement had really taken off, only 17 percent of the American public was in favor of lowering the voting age. By 1967, this had changed dramatically: 64 percent of Americans were in favor of the change.

You don’t need to be a mathematician to understand the dramatic shift in public opinion. The shift wasn’t led by legislators or think tanks or journalists. The shift in opinion was led by young people. It also took a long time, and a lot of activism.

We know that power justifies itself. In this case, young people changed this power justification, and the broader narrative, by convincing the public that they deserved the right to vote, and that our democracy would be better off with their participation.

The youth also enlisted allies and political leaders in their cause to create power. President Dwight Eisenhower first gave his voice to the cause in his 1954 State of the Union, arguing that 18-year-olds should have the right to vote. He used the same justification that the young people had brought to the forefront:

For years our citizens between the ages of 18 and 21 have, in time of peril, been summoned to fight for America. They should participate in the political process that produces this fateful summons. I urge Congress to propose to the states a constitutional amendment permitting citizens to vote when they reach the age of 18.

But he did not use his own political capital to help the cause; he just gave lip service to the issue without attempting to push it forward.

The first efforts really started in the 1940s: The actual campaign for ratification took over 30 years.

In 1963, a report issued to President Johnson by the President’s Commission on Registration and Voting Participation encouraged the policy change as well—citing that the move would bolster overall voter participation. Similarly to Eisenhower, however, Johnson did not expend his own political capital to push the issue forward.

Recognizing that empty words from politicians would not lead to real change, young people focused on the grassroots: Project 18 formed partnerships with local and national organizations across the country. Persuading groups of the urgency of the moment and demonstrating its appeal to young people, Project 18 teamed with a wide array of diverse youth-serving organizations like the Y, the union group AFL-CIO, and the racial justice–focused NAACP to create the Youth Franchise Coalition to lobby for a constitutional amendment. Groups across the country, from all over the political spectrum, mobilized in favor of the cause after listening to their young constituents.

On March 10, 1971, the Senate voted 94-to-0 in favor of proposing a constitutional amendment to lower the voting age. Just 13 days later, on March 23, the House of Representatives voted 401-to-19 in favor of the amendment. Per law, the amendment was then sent to state legislatures for their consideration. The ratification was completed on July 1, 1971, after the amendment had officially been ratified by 38 states.

President Nixon spoke at a ceremony on July 5, 1971, to mark the occasion. He talked about the potential of youth activism as part of the United States’ cumulative political journey and the country’s democratic fabric:

As I meet with this group today, I sense that we can have confidence that America’s new voters, America’s young generation, will provide what America needs as we approach our 200th birthday, not just strength and not just wealth, but the “Spirit of ’76,” a spirit of moral courage, a spirit of high idealism in which we believe in the American dream, but in which we realize that the American dream can never be fulfilled until every American has an equal chance to fulfill it in his own life.

It is sometimes claimed that the 26th Amendment was ratified at a historically fast pace. Indeed, it was less than four months from the Senate first voting on it to its ultimate ratification. That speed is unprecedented for a change to our Constitution, given the fact that the move requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate and ratification by the same percentage of states in the union.

But this analysis does not take into account that the first efforts really started in the 1940s: The actual campaign for ratification took over 30 years. The speed of the final efforts was only possible because of all the momentum that had accumulated.

Simply put, the expansion of suffrage would not have happened without young people, who deployed their complete tactic toolkit to take action.

They became powerful.

And this power changed the very electorate of the United States.

Excerpted from Generation Citizen: The Power of Youth in Our Politics by Scott Warren. Copyright © 2019 by Scott Warren, from Generation Citizen. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press.

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