By Jennifer Frost

In an extract from her new book “Let Us Vote: Youth Voting Rights and the 26th Amendment,” Jennifer Frost outlines the path towards youth voting rights in the United States. 

In 1969, pop musicians Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart released “L.U.V. (Let Us Vote).” “It’s been a long time getting’ here; A change is comin’ and it’s very near.” Their first claim to fame was writing songs for a popular television show about an imaginary, Beatles-esque band, The Monkees, yet this song was far from just fun and frivolous. It was the campaign theme song for a grassroots student organization, Let Us Vote, founded that year in California.

The song had a focused aim—winning voting rights for young people—and it made an argument in support of that aim emphasizing young people’s education and maturity.

L.U.V, I’m talking ’bout you and me

And changin’ things peacefully

We’re old enough so L.U.V.

It offered an optimistic message about the possibilities for social and political change at the end of the 1960s.

Let us vote!

It’s time that we all made a contribution

Come on and let us vote

It’s a solution

Boyce and Hart’s song never achieved great popularity at the time (although it did make the Billboard chart), and few remember it today. But the story behind this song and how it was used to mobilize and organize is evidence of the thirty-year struggle for youth voting rights in the United States.

Paying attention to Boyce and Hart’s “Let Us Vote” illustrates how Americans, old and young, Democrat and Republican, in politics and culture built a movement and momentum for the 26th Amendment to the US Constitution. This amendment, ratified in 1971, gave the right to vote to 18, 19, and 20-year olds and marked the last time that the United States significantly expanded and protected voting rights. Although historians, legal scholars, and political scientists have written persuasively about various aspects of this topic, there is only one book-length historical overview.[1]

Historical neglect of this important topic has given rise to a misinterpretation about how the 26th Amendment came about.  Most scholars attribute its achievement to “top-down” efforts by politicians rather than “bottom-up” campaigns or a movement by young people themselves. This interpretation certainly has a basis in fact. Jennings Randolph, Democrat from West Virginia, has rightly earned the title “Father of the 26th Amendment.” Starting in 1942 as a member of the House of Representatives and then continuing in the Senate, Randolph made it his goal to achieve voting rights for 18, 19, and 20-year-olds. In 1971, he fulfilled that goal, when his proposed constitutional amendment became the law of the land. “I’m the one who lowered the voting age, you know,” he said in a later interview. “I gave 18-year-olds the vote,” he added, reinforcing the top-down interpretation.  “I’m proud of that.”[2]

Correctly crediting proponents in Congress for their contributions, however, has led to a lack of recognition or respect for the role of young Americans as well as their many other older allies. “The Twenty-sixth Amendment was not sought by and was of no interest whatever to the eighteen-year-olds to whom it granted the vote,” dismissed one scholar.[3] This claim that young people had little interest or involvement in winning the right to vote does not stack up against the historical evidence or the memories of participants. With the 50th anniversary of the penultimate amendment to the US Constitution upon us, I hope this historical study can begin to do justice to a major advance toward democracy and equality in the United States.

How and why calls and claims for youth suffrage emerged, proceeded, and succeeded over a thirty-year period are the overarching questions for this book. Understanding who participated, their arguments and strategies, their conflicts and coalitions, and developments on the local, state, and national levels helps to explain the success of youth voting rights specifically. These answers also can illuminate the process of political change more broadly.

The 26th Amendment was the result of a sustained struggle for youth suffrage, beginning in the early 1940s and lasting to the early 1970s. Although calls for lowering the voting age well predate the mid-20th century, these thirty years mark a period of consistent advocacy and action. Only in the crucial last phase of 1969-1971 did a national movement emerge. Putting those years within a longer time frame allows us to see how individual efforts and organized campaigns built the movement over three decades. During the 1940s and 1950s, a few prominent figures and organizations pushed for youth voting rights nationally and locally. In the second phase of the 1960s, the number and locations of proponents expanded exponentially and energized the existing efforts. These developments culminated in the youth franchise movement.

This longer, more expansive story makes it clear that youth voting rights were achieved not only through the actions of politicians but through the interrelationship of “top-down” and “bottom-up” forces. Proponents with political power—US leaders (including presidents, both Democratic and Republican), state officials, and members of prominent national organizations—interacted with Americans involved in campus and community organizing. They communicated and cooperated in myriad ways, directly and indirectly, across three decades. Participation from proponents in government, within organizations, and at the grassroots contributed to the political mobilization that led to this historic change.

A broad and bipartisan coalition characterized this mobilization. In the making from the start, this coalition came together formally in late 1968-early 1969 as the Youth Franchise Coalition. This coalition included well-known, older, multi-issue organizations and groups, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and National Education Association (NEA), and new ones dedicated solely to the issue of youth voting rights, like Citizens for Vote 18 and Let’s Vote 18. Together, they worked to lower the voting age to eighteen, shaping and sustaining the successful movement.

Over time, these proponents advanced numerous arguments for youth voting rights. Young Americans fulfilled citizenship responsibilities and so deserved the rights of citizenship. They had the maturity and education to vote. Their participation would strengthen democracy and government in the United States, and many more. Revealed and reflected in the chronology of the youth suffrage struggle—from World War II to the Vietnam War—was the most influential argument: “old enough to fight, old enough to vote.” In 1942, the draft age for military service reduced to 18, yet voting remained a right gained only at 21.  This profound unfairness and injustice propelled early proponents. The poignant rallying cry grew louder with the Korean War and louder still with the American war in Vietnam.

These efforts, campaigns, and eventual movement also involved a range of strategies on the local, state, and national level. Supporters initially pursued legislation, specifically constitutional amendments at both the state and federal levels. But later they engaged in education, organizing, lobbying, litigation, and cultural politics. The complicated structure of the US government—with a separation of powers between the states and the federal government and among the three branches of the federal government—plus the need to build grassroots support necessitated this range of strategies.

This multiplicity—of participants, organizations, arguments, and strategies—could have fragmented the youth franchise movement and undermined its effectiveness. The opposite happened. This multiplicity made the movement. It meant people had many points of entry and helped to transform isolated efforts and state campaigns into a national movement by 1969. And multiplicity gave the movement flexibility and energy in the final phase leading up to victory with the 26th Amendment in 1971.

By charting this thirty-year history of how and why the United States has a voting age of eighteen, one conclusion is obvious: the 1960s were pivotal. Progress toward achieving youth suffrage built on the decade’s many social movements, political achievements, legal developments, and three additional constitutional amendments. Success came within the context of the 1960s, not at any earlier point in the thirty-year effort.

This success owed much to the African American struggle for civil and voting rights. “The Civil Rights Movement was a borning struggle,” activist, singer, and scholar Bernice Johnson Reagon has argued.[4]  It is well known that the freedom movement offered inspiration and impetus for all the activism that followed, including the student, antiwar, feminist, and other movements.  Taken together, these movements created the circumstances and context during “the sixties” that made youth voting rights seem and in fact be possible. As proponent and Youth Franchise Coalition founder Paul J. Myer notes, “I think the confluence of civil rights and other issues began to form a cauldron of passion and activity that made it very hard for politicians to simply treat the vote as a nice thing to give.  It forced politicians to not just put out statements but to actually act.  That’s where we were coming from.”[5]

This familiar story about the profound influence of the freedom movement on the sixties takes a pragmatic twist with regard to youth suffrage. Civil rights organizations, leadership, and lobbyists were central to forming and furthering the youth franchise movement. Even more, civil rights legislation, legal arguments, and court decisions in the 1960s provided the legislative and legal path for the 18-year-old vote. Youth vote advocates and activists certainly drew inspiration from the freedom movement.  They also got lessons in politics and policymaking and a concrete, practical way to achieve their goal.

The decade of the 1960s was pivotal to the achievement of youth voting rights in another way. It was during the sixties that young people committed to their own and others’ enfranchisement came to the fore. Student and youth groups started to organize campaigns on campuses and at the state and local levels. Single-issue youth suffrage organizations spread. Given that youth activism is one of the defining characteristics of the sixties, it makes sense that this was the decade when young Americans built a movement to lower the voting age. Individual and collective efforts among youth can be found in earlier decades. But just as the sixties generation contributed to change in so many aspects of American life, they took the struggle for youth suffrage in new, politically advantageous directions.

In turn, the youth franchise movement needs to be understood as a “sixties movement.” That it hasn’t been can be explained partly by the larger scholarly neglect of this topic. Another reason is that the standard narrative of the sixties simplifies, truncates, or mischaracterizes the decade’s events and developments. As a result, few historical surveys of the 1960s include the 26th Amendment much less the movement that achieved it. A sign of this inattention is that early editions of one important history misnamed it (since corrected!) the “Thirty-sixth Amendment to the Constitution.”[6] British historian of the global 1960s, Arthur Marwick observed fifteen years ago that “too little attention is still given to the way in which young people, at the age of eighteen, were given the vote.”[7] His observation still holds true, even if “given” doesn’t quite capture how the 26th Amendment came about.

The absence of that story, the proponents, and their movement from our histories of the 1960s means we miss one of the most consequential changes of that transformative decade. I did so myself, until recently. Twenty years ago I published a book on the 1960s and started teaching a course titled “Making Sense of the Sixties” (a title borrowed from a 1991 PBS documentary series). Only in 2014, after offering that course many times, did I teach about the 26th Amendment. I remember preparing my last lecture on the legacies of the sixties, when I realized, “wait, didn’t young people get the right to vote?” Fortunately, we assign as a required reading a brief chronology of the decade courtesy of David Farber and Beth Bailey, which includes the amendment.[8]  From that moment, I knew I wanted to research and write this history.

As it turns out, this history offers a different perspective on the 1960s. Placing the movement for youth voting rights alongside other sixties movements and in its proper context challenges the standard narrative and reinforces revisionist interpretations of the decade in several ways.

The standard narrative presents the chronology of the 1960s as a discrete decade from 1960 to 1970. In fact, some early histories end even earlier, in 1968 or 1969, at just the time the struggle for youth suffrage became a movement. Similarly, activism among high school students “peaked between 1968 and 1973,” Gael Graham found.[9] Describing this period as “the sixties” rather than “the 1960s” already indicates a broader timeframe and defines, as John D’Emilio does, “an era organically bound together by events, outlook, and mood.” Adopting the revisionist concept of the “long sixties” further brings into view the youth franchise movement and the 26th Amendment. D’Emilio, Wini Breines, and Andrew Hunt have argued for expanding our chronology. These historians have made the case that movements emerging in the later 1960s and into the 1970s, like women’s liberation, gay liberation, and Vietnam Veterans Against the War, were sixties movements. They, like youth suffrage, need to be included in our histories of the era.[10]

Importantly, including these movements and their social and political impact changes the standard narrative, the story we tell of the era. According to this initial version of events, the early “good” sixties of the civil rights movement and a young President John F. Kennedy devolved into the late “bad” sixties of defeat in Vietnam and riots in the streets. This so-called “declension” interpretation of the 1960s as identified by Breines can be seen in book titles.  “Coming Apart,” “The Unraveling of America,” and “Years of Hope, Days of Rage” are just a few.[11] But when these later movements and their accomplishments are understood as a product of the 1960s, the last years of the decade and the next look much, much brighter. The success of the youth suffrage movement and achievement of the 26th Amendment in 1971 means a major expansion of American democracy came right at the end of the “long sixties.” The declension interpretation fits only some developments during the decade and misses many others. So why then does this interpretation have such power?

The origins of the standard narrative’s story of decline can be located in the politics of the sixties. The era has long been understood as an important period for liberalism, the dominant political philosophy of the time, and radicalism, with a “new left” coming onto the scene. Liberals in the Democratic Party started the decade with political power and plans for reform, while young radicals in the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) sought to realize a more democratic and equal America. But in 1968, Democrats lost the presidency, and SDS began to fracture. Early histories focused on politics—whether center or left—featured this defeat and downfall. More recently, conservatism has come to be recognized as a significant political force during the decade. Those political histories trace a contrasting story arc, of a rising right wing in the Republican Party.[12]

Even so, because of its political dominance, “liberalism’s rise and fall” remains the standard narrative of the 1960s. There are good reasons for viewing liberal politics in this way. The early high hopes—even hubris—of liberals to achieve reform raised expectations and then failed to deliver, in large part due to the decision of a liberal president, Lyndon B. Johnson, to escalate the American war in Vietnam. Both conservatives and radicals during the decade defined themselves against liberals and fiercely criticized their failures. As Allen J. Matusow summarizes, “in a few short years, optimism vanished, fundamental values emerged to divide the country, social cohesion rapidly declined, and the unraveling of America began.”[13]

By focusing on youth voting rights and the 26th Amendment, however, this book tells a different story about liberalism over the “long sixties.” It was mostly liberals who led the efforts, supported the campaigns, and joined the movement to establish the right of Americans aged eighteen and up to vote. They were young and old, from both major political parties, and in all sorts of organizations and groups. Yet those of the sixties generation who participated in the youth franchise movement expressed a new kind of liberal politics. Coming of age alongside civil rights and new left activists, they shared many of the same commitments. To young Americans as political actors. To an inclusive democracy. To achieving civil rights and racial justice. To ending poverty and the war in Vietnam. To creating change through grassroots organizing and electoral politics. Contrary to Matusow’s summary of liberalism at the end of the sixties, these liberals stayed hopeful, forged a coalition, and attained a constitutional amendment that advanced first-class citizenship for young Americans and benefited every constituency in the nation.

The 26th Amendment was a consummate liberal achievement. The right to vote has both intrinsic and instrumental value. It represents our inclusion in the democratic polity and provides the means to be heard and achieve our aims within it. While the pillars of liberalism—a capitalist economy, welfare state, democratic institutions, and civil liberties—lead to a certain set of policy preferences—economic regulation, social programs, and electoral reform—liberalism is more than policymaking. Kevin Mattson puts it well. It is “a humanist project committed to pushing people to think beyond the interests of the self” and to “the core values of pragmatism and pluralism.”[14] In their struggle for youth suffrage, proponents carried this project forward. “In the final analysis,” said Edward J. Forand in 1969, “we want to push the idea of negotiation, compromise, and, over all, a sense of human compassion to bring everyone together.”[15] Forand and his peers show the persistence and success of liberal reform, despite significant failures and criticism on all sides, into the 1970s.

Still it cannot be denied that the politics and policies of the 1960s put all liberals on the defensive for decades to come. They did because when liberals were in power, as Terry H. Anderson reminded us, all the key conflicts in American history reemerged. Democratic inclusion versus exclusion, states’ rights versus federal power, peace-seeking versus war-mongering, ideals of equality versus the reality of inequality, and individualism versus community. Youth voting rights intersected with all of these conflicts. During these years, Americans questioned and contested “the very nature and meaning” of their nation, Anderson concluded in his textbook on the sixties.[16] A more inclusive American democracy through expanded voting rights, including for youth, was one answer. Such answers made this era one of the most transformative in US history. It is a legacy still being fought over.

In the fifty years since, the 26th Amendment has often been seen as an easy, even unremarkable achievement. True, extending the right to vote to a new group of Americans was not a radical change to “politics as usual.” And three decades is half of the 72 years women fought for equal suffrage in the United States. Even a proponent like Dennis Warren, who helped to create Let Us Vote in 1969 and collaborated on its theme song, emphasized the relative ease and speed. “Being a student of history, I thought that we would be the catalyst and that it would take years and years.” But that wasn’t the case. “Things started falling together in a way you could never imagine. It really was serendipity in many respects.”[17]

“Serendipity” is one way to see the achievement of the 26th Amendment. It’s true that proponents, like Randolph Jennings, Paul Myer, Edward Forand, and Dennis Warren, and their cause found and fit the historical moment. But as the saying goes “chance favors those who prepare.” And proponents of youth voting rights had been preparing for decades.

References:

[1] Wendell W. Cultice, Youth’s Battle for the Ballot: A History of the Voting Age in America (Westport: Greenwood, 1992).  Rebecca de Schweinitz usefully summarizes the historiography in “‘The Proper Age for Suffrage’: Vote 18 and the Politics of Age From World War II to the Age of Aquarius,” Corinne T. Field and Nicholas L. Syrett, eds., Age in America: The Colonial Era to the Present (New York University Press, 2015), 209-210, 231, note 2.

[2] Randolph, quoted in Martin Weil, “Former Sen. Jennings Randolph Dies,” Washington Post (May 9, 1998), B06.

[3] Judith N. Shklar, American Citizenship: The Quest for Inclusion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), 18.  Cultice, Youth’s Battle for the Ballot, and de Schweinitz, “‘The Proper Age for Suffrage,’” take issue with this interpretation as well; Cultice’s title says as much.

[4] Bernice J. Reagon, “A Borning Struggle,” New Directions 7 (April 1980), 1.

[5] Paul J. Myer, interview with author, August 10, 2019.

[6] Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin, America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 281.

[7] Arthur Marwick, “The Cultural Revolution of the Long Sixties: Voices of Reaction, Protest, and Permeation,” The International History Review 27 (December 2005), 798.

[8] “Brief Chronology,” in David Farber and Beth Bailey, The Columbia Guide to America in the 1960s (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 437-444.

[9] Gael Graham, Young Activists: American High School Students in the Age of Protest (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2006), 5.

[10] John D’Emilio, “Placing Gay in the Sixties,” in Alexander Bloom, ed., Long Time Gone: Sixties America Then and Now (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 209-229; Winifred Breines, “Whose New Left?” Journal of American History 75 (September 1988): 528-545; Andrew Hunt, “‘When Did the Sixties Happen?’ Searching for New Directions,” Journal of Social History 33 (Autumn 1999): 147-161.

[11] Breines, “Whose New Left?” 528-545; William O’Neill, Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the

1960s (New York: Times Books, 1971); Allen J. Matusow, The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s (New York, 1984); Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope Days of Rage (New York: Bantam, 1987).

[12] Mary C. Brennan, Turning Right in the 1960s: The Conservative Capture of the GOP (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

[13] Matusow, The Unraveling of America, xiv.

[14] Kevin Mattson, When America Was Great: The Fighting Faith of Postwar Liberalism (New York: Routledge, 2004), 6-7.

[15] Edward J. Forand, quoted in Joey Williams, “Looking for a Battle Plan?” Moderator (April 1969), 13.

[16] Terry H. Anderson, The Sixties (New York: Longman, 1999), 222.

[17] Warren, quoted in Jan Ferris Heenan, “Warren Remembers His Time Fondly On National Stage,” Pacific Law (Fall 2009), 33.


Extract from Frost, Jennifer, 2021. Let Us Vote: Youth Voting Rights and the 26th Amendment. NYU Press. 

To buy the book click here

Jennifer Frost is an Associate Professor in History at the University of Auckland. Frost is an expert on social, cultural, and political developments in the twentieth-century United States.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect the author’s opinion and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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