Fifty years ago this week, Congress passed a new amendment to the Constitution, the 26th Amendment, to outlaw age discrimination in voting and to extend the right to vote to Americans as young as 18. This lesser known amendment passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, 94-0 in the Senate and 401-19 in the House. It also rounded the requisite 38 states in record time — less than 100 days — making it the quickest amendment to be ratified in U.S. history. Its ratification ushered in a sea change in our electoral system allowing 11 million young Americans between the ages of 18-21 to fully participate in their democracy.
Despite enjoying cross-partisan support for decades, today the 26th Amendment is under assault from an onslaught of voter suppression bills specifically targeting young voters, particularly young voters of color. The 26th Amendment is an explicit constitutional protection of youth voting rights, which is enormously relevant now that these rights are under direct threat. As we face these threats, it is crucial that we not only fight for the passage of the For the People Act (H.R.1/S.1) but that we also recognize and leverage the existing constitutional protections codified within the 26th Amendment.
More than 250 voter suppression bills have already been introduced this year in 43 states – seven times higher than the number of similar bills this time last year. It’s no coincidence that these bills all look the same. They essentially propose to limit access to vote by mail, impose stricter, arbitrary voter ID requirements, slash voter registration opportunities, reduce early voting, and enable targeted voter roll purges. The discriminatory intention of these restrictive bills on youth voters is evident — 70 percent of young people reported voting early or absentee during the 2020 general election. While two-thirds of states allow qualified voters to vote from home without an excuse, new proposals like Georgia SB 241 propose to limit access to no-excuse voting to only those over the age of 65, and seven states readily implement these age-discrimination vote by mail laws. When voting at home is available to younger folks, they use it. Only 6.6 percent of voters 18 to 24 voted by mail in states that restrict this option, compared to 22.5 percent nationally.
The evidence is clear; these bills are in direct response to youth voter turnout in the 2020 election. A recent study of vote by mail ballots in Florida found that young voters were over three times more likely to need to cure their ballots compared to older voters. Rather than enact restrictive laws, we should be working to modernize our election system.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic crisis and deliberate silencing tactics, young voters increased their participation by around ten percentage points in 2020. Their historically high turnout nearly matched the record set in 1972 following the ratification of the 26th Amendment. In Georgia, youth participation was the highest nationally, accounting for one in every five voters in the state. Thousands of young people stepped up to serve as poll-workers across the country as older volunteers, who traditionally work in these roles, retreated home for safety.
This watershed moment in our democracy yielded the largest total voter turnout in U.S. history.
These bills are predicated on the big lie that the 2020 election was mired by election fraud. That big lie has been debunked; not a single court has found merit to the claim despite over 50 election 2020 legal challenges. A joint statement by the Elections Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council and the Election Infrastructure Sector Coordinating Executive Committees in November found that the election was the “most secure in American history … There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.” Similarly, the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security recently issued a joint statement finding no evidence that a foreign government manipulated any election results or otherwise compromised the integrity of the 2020 federal elections.
Advocates for these restrictions have clear intentions: to rig the system to exclude specific types of voters from participating. Public confidence in our elections booms when voters can participate, not when their access is cynically obstructed.
The 26th Amendment was ratified in record time. As President Nixon noted in 1971 during the ceremonial certification, young people provide a moral center “that this nation always needs, because a country, throughout history, we find, goes through ebbs and flows of idealism.” Young people have always been at the forefront of change, and they continue to do so today, even as the promise of the 26th Amendment has yet to be fully fulfilled. We must work together to hold our elected officials accountable.
We must demand the passage of the For the People Act because it is crucial to our democracy. We must also recognize and harness the existing power of the 26th Amendment to protect voting rights. Our political leaders united exactly 50 years ago this week to galvanize these values and ensure that young voters have an equal stake in our democracy. Now more than ever we need to honor these values.
Yael Bromberg, Esq. serves as chief counsel for Voting Rights with The Andrew Goodman Foundation (outside counsel), an organization dedicated to making young voices and votes a powerful force in democracy. She is principal of Bromberg Law LLC and a lecturer at Rutgers School of Law where she teaches Elections & the Political Process. She is author of the article, “Youth Voting Rights and the Unfulfilled Promise of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment.”