Before July 1, 1971, no American younger than 21 could vote in a federal, state or local election no matter where he or she lived. But that all changed once Ohio became the 38th state to ratify the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — the fastest any amendment has ever been ratified. President Richard Nixon signed it into law on July 5.
In general, anyone 21 and older could vote in the U.S., though some states like Georgia lowered the voting age for state and local elections, but when World War II broke out, President Franklin D. Roosevelt lowered the draft age to 18. Now 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds could be drafted and trained to fight in wars, but they had no say in electing people deciding to send them off to Europe or the Pacific.
Calls to lower the voting age rose dramatically as the Vietnam War raged on, and both Congress and Nixon expressed support for lowering the voting age.
The editorial board at the Chicago Daily News had long supported the idea and celebrated ratification.
“Broadening the franchise to involve today’s young people — an increasing number of whom are deeply committed to ‘involvement’ — is a healthy development,” the paper said. “The opportunity is now at hand for the young voters to prove their commitment and responsibility by registering and taking an active part in the elections of 1972.”
According to the Census Bureau, the amendment enfranchised about 11 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 20. Another 14 million voters ages 21 through 25 had missed the 1968 election and would be eligible to vote now, the editorial board said. Capturing that youth vote would be either party’s game. A Gallup poll found that 42% of those 18- to 20-year-olds called themselves independents. Another 42% considered themselves Democrats and another 18% identified as Republicans.
But focusing on the youth vote wouldn’t decide the election, the editorial board surmised.
“Ironically, the voting power at the other end of the age spectrum is also increasing, with larger numbers of elderly persons organizing for causes tailed to their particular interest,” the board wrote. “The 1972 politician must be agile if he is to please both of these groups and still appeal to all those voters in the middle range. But the strategy, we suspect, will remain the same: Promises something for everybody.”