A Half-Century of Young Adult Suffrage
by Dr. Laura Roost | Political Science Program Coordinator - July 30, 2021
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Ratified on July 1, 1971, this amendment ensured that “[t]he 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.” This amendment acknowledged the reality that many who participated as adults in the U.S. from the age of 18 on – as military service members, in the general workforce, and in their communities – could not vote until the age of 21. This left them without a say in the democratic process that elected representatives, who in turn made policies which impacted them in nearly every way.
The timing of this amendment during the Vietnam War shows what many pointed out to be an absurdity: since men in the U.S. needed to register for selective service at 18, there were a number getting drafted for military service in Vietnam who could not vote, just as many had been in World War II. In World War II, a shortage of troops led the draft age to be lowered to 18 in 1942, which began the protest phrase: “Old Enough to Fight, Old Enough to Vote.”
Do note that men who are 18 in the U.S. still need to register for selective service at sss.gov/register, and you can also register as part of your FAFSA application. Those who are conscientious objectors (religiously or morally opposed to participating in war) could submit a for conscientious objector classification in the event of a draft. There have been discussions of amending existing law to include women in selective service registration, since all military occupational specialties are open to anyone who qualifies for the position, but to date there has been no such change.
Fifty years of the 26th amendment has given 50 years of voting access for those 18 and older, and many have been able to use their access to the vote to have their voice heard in the important matters that impact their everyday life. However, even after half a century of suffrage, voters in the 18-34 age group tend to have the lowest voter turnout. Voter registration drives and other initiatives continue to be important for ensuring that citizens make themselves heard in matters that affect them and their community. As a good milestone, with a variety of voting options available this past election year, 18-34-year-olds saw their largest jump in voting as 57% voted in the 2020 presidential election, while only 49% voted in 2016.
Expanding voting access has been a continual debate in U.S. history, and the 26th expands to all adults letting them contribute in every way to their communities, including politically. The debate has been a key aspect of U.S. history and politics because voting ensures that our government represents “We the People.” If you are not registered to vote, please consider honoring the 50th anniversary of the 26th amendment and the struggles of those who advocated for it from 1942 to 1971. Take a couple minutes to register to vote, or remind others to register if they have not.
If you are a citizen who lives in South Carolina, as a resident or college student, you can register to vote online at scvotes.gov, or go to your local county voter registration and elections office (in Newberry, the address is 1872 Wilson Road, or you can call 803.321.2121 with questions). If you are a college student, you can register at your campus address or your home address, but you can only vote at your chosen address. Talk to your local county elections office if you have questions. To get information on registering to vote in other states or territories, you can go to vote.gov.
Photo: The National WWII Museum