July 20, 2021 at 5:00 am ET
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. Decades ago, one of us, Rosalyn Baker, directly helped achieve this expansion of voting rights for young people, while the other, Whitney Williams, continues fighting today to ensure these hard-earned rights are not diminished. Incredibly, this is still a battle that needs to be fought.
Fifty years ago, young people and voting rights advocates saw their push for lowering the voting age stall in Congress. In the years prior, thousands of men ages 18-20 were drafted to the Vietnam War and lost their lives in a supposed defense of democracy, heightening calls for expanding the right to vote to 18-year-olds. Just as youth advocated for women’s right to vote in the 1920s and again for the meaningful extension of voting rights for Black people in the 1960s, young people from across the political spectrum took to the streets to push for congressional passage of the 26th Amendment.
First as a student and then a teacher, Rosalyn saw the stakes of youth disenfranchisement firsthand: Before joining the National Education Association staff and working with the Youth Franchise Coalition to push for lowering the voting age, Rosalyn intervened to allow two of her male college students to pass her political science class so that they could stay in school and avoid being unjustly subjected to the draft.
Since its ratification, the amendment has brought millions of Americans into the political process, giving younger voters the foundation to push for reforms, from fighting for climate and racial justice to immigration and gun reform. The influence of younger voters has grown significantly. In 2020, the United States’ population of those ages 18-24 measured 28.7 million, making up nearly a 10th of the country’s population. Voter participation among this group surged from 39 percent in 2016 to 48 percent in 2020 and played a decisive role in the 2020 presidential election. In future elections, we can expect the highly politically engaged, diverse cohort of young people in Gen Z to continue growing their political influence.
Protecting our young people’s right to vote is essential to a fair, functioning democracy that properly represents its citizens. But between this year’s wave of state-level voter suppression bills across the nation and the Senate’s inability to pass federal voting rights legislation, new and existing barriers facing young voters threaten both the promise and the achievements of the 26th Amendment.
When the pandemic hit last March, college students like Whitney were unexpectedly forced to return home from their campuses and change both their voting address and polling location. Several months after requesting an address change, she was still required to use a provisional ballot in the November election because the changes were not in the election system.
Young people, particularly college students, face unique barriers to both voter registration and casting their ballots. In comparison to older voters, they are more likely to move frequently, requiring new updates to their voter registration, and are less likely to have a driver’s license, one of the most common forms of identification that meets the voter ID requirements imposed by many states. Students attending college away from home can also face difficulties in proving local residency at their campus address or securing absentee vote eligibility at their permanent address, depending on where they choose to vote. State legislation that seeks to impose more restrictions on voter registration, eligibility and ballot access needlessly exacerbates these issues.
Members of Congress must remain steadfast in their commitment to passing federal voting protections, including the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Local governments can take action by passing local ordinances protecting voting rights, expanding voting options through administrative action and providing robust and comprehensive voter education to protect their constituents against state-level voter suppression bills. States should also be updating their voting laws to make voting easier and more accessible, not harder.
Policies like these will protect voting rights and increase access for all voters, not just young people. But as today’s young voters prepare to lead our communities in the future, it’s imperative that they are able to act as full participants in our civic life. We must see to the unfinished business that the 26th Amendment promised our young people all those years ago, by solidifying once and for all their right to be heard at the ballot box.
Rosalyn Baker is a member of the Hawaii State Senate, representing District 6; she led the National Education Association’s Project 18 and later joined efforts with the national Youth Franchise Coalition, which successfully lobbied Congress to propose the 26th Amendment and then worked in 1971 to secure ratification votes in 38 state legislatures.
Whitney Williams is a sophomore at Spelman College in Georgia, majoring in political science; she served as a democracy fellow during the 2020 election and run offs with Fair Elections Center’s Campus Vote Project and is currently a communications intern with the program.
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