40 Years Ago...NEA Rocked the Vote
The 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, allowing millions of young people to participate actively in the democratic process and to have a powerful voice in shaping their political future.
The 26th Amendment was passed faster than any Constitutional amendment in history, but that doesn't mean it was an easy process. It took a group of young activists from the National Education Association and their allies, to harness the energy of student activism in the 1960's and make the dream a reality.
The first rumblings to lower the voting age emerged in the midst of the Vietnam War, with student demonstrations running strong. The slogan "Old enough to fight, old enough to vote," gained popularity and some groups, including student members of the California Teachers Association (CTA), hoped to change the system from within.
"It was all done with the spirit of what was right," said Mel Myler, president of the CTA Student Association at the time. "How do we provide access to people in a way that they've never had access before?"
In 1967, the group passed a resolution supporting an 18-year-old voting age, mustering the support of the NEA-Student Program and the NEA Representative Assembly's thousands of nationwide members. Then, in 1969, the NEA initiated its campaign for the measure, called Project 18, teaming with organizations like YMCA, AFL-CIO and NAACP and creating the Youth Franchise Coalition to lobby for a Constitutional amendment.
At the same time, they hatched grassroots campaigns state by state, raising public awareness and pressing legislators to support their cause. In 1970, President Richard Nixon passed the Voting Rights Act, which called for the voting age to be 18 - but advocates couldn't start celebrating yet. That year, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for Congress to mandate voting age for state and local elections.
An amendment to the Constitution was the only way. Supporters kept their momentum strong.
"We were asking them to include people in the electorate who might vote against them. But, in fact, we convinced a great majority of legislators to do that," says Les Francis, who along with State Senator Roz Baker from Hawaii, directed Project 18. "That's unusual in politics."
In the end, their efforts paid off. The Senate, with leadership from lawmakers like Jennings Randolph from West Virginia and Birch Evan Bayh from Indiana, voted 94-0 to pass the resolution, and 13 days later, on March 23, 1971, the House voted in favor. Within four months, the amendment was ratified by the required three-fourths of state legislatures. It was the fastest time any proposed amendment has been pressed forward, and President Nixon signed it into law in July.
Millions of 18, 19 and 20 year olds could now vote in the 1972 presidential election. They, and the young activists who fought for the change, paved the way for future generations of young people to exercise their political voices.