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The 26th amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the American federal and state governments from denying someone 18 years or older the right to vote on account of age. This amendment was added to the United States Constitution on 1 July 1971 after ratification by 38 states. Although eight states never ratified the 26th amendment, the required three-quarters of the states did, and therefore its adoption was certified by the Administrator of General Services. The amendment was adopted in partial response to anti-war student activism and the Supreme Court’s 1970 decision in Oregon v. Mitchell.
There are two sections in the 26th amendment. The first states that the voting rights of citizens who are at least 18 years old cannot be denied on account of age. The second section reserves Congress’s right to enforce the amendment with appropriate legislation.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower stated his support for prohibiting the age-based denial of voting rights in his 1954 State of the Union Address. It wasn’t until 1970 that the establishment of 18 as the voting age in all elections was signed into law, however, by President Richard Nixon as an extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Oregon and Texas quickly launched a legal challenge of the law arguing that states should be allowed to set their own age limits for state elections.
The Supreme Court of the United States heard arguments in Oregon v. Mitchell in 1970. The court held that although Congress had the power to set voter requirements in federal elections, this authority did not extend to state and local elections. The question of whether the federal government can prevent states from lowering their voting ages below 18 for state and local elections remains open as of 2011.
This decision, coupled with the fact that at the time many young men who were ineligible to vote were old enough to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War, motivated the rapid ratification of the 26th amendment. The process began in March 1971, when Congress voted in favor of proposing the 26th amendment. The Senate approved unanimously, while 19 of 420 representatives in the House opposed. Four months later, Congress submitted the amendment to the states for ratification.
In order for an amendment to be adopted as part of the Constitution, it must first be ratified by three-quarters of the states. The 26th amendment was ratified by 42 states in approximately 100 days. It is the fastest ratification in American history; in most cases, the ratification process can take at least 200 days to complete and is not always successful.
The 26th amendment was part of a series of constitutional changes including amendments 19, 23, and 24 that protected and extended voting rights for specific groups of people. The 19th amendment established a woman’s right to vote, while the 23rd amendment gave citizens in the District of Columbia the right to vote in presidential elections. The 24th amendment prohibited charging a poll tax in order to vote, thus protecting people who could not afford such fees.