Old enough to fight, old enough to vote. That was the battle cry that 50 years ago won 18-year-olds the right to vote. March 23 is the golden anniversary of the passage in the House of Representatives of the 26th Amendment, which extended the franchise to 11 million young Americans age 18 to 21, a significant historical event so overlooked that some call it “the forgotten amendment.”
It passed the Senate 94-0 on March 10 and the House 401-19 on March 23. Five states ratified it the same day, and by July 1, three-fourths or 38 states had weighed in, the fastest ratification of any constitutional amendment. On July 5, 1971, President Nixon held a signing ceremony at the White House. It was totally symbolic. Presidents have no role in affirming constitutional amendments. “He wanted to take credit for it,” says Les Francis, a youth voting rights activist at the time.
It was a time of widespread social upheaval, and the 18-year-old vote became emblematic of how to change the system from within. “Campuses were starting to be the center of dissent and the 18-year-old vote was a safe way to get involved,” Francis told the Daily Beast. First as a student and then working for the California Teachers Association and finally heading Project 18 for the NEA, Francis worked with the Youth Franchise Coalition, an array of groups that weren’t all young and weren’t all progressive. But together, they became the driving force behind the amendment’s passage.