Forty years ago today, President Nixon signed the Twenty-sixth Amendment to the constitution, lowering the national voting age from 21 to 18. Adopted in response to the student activism and anti-war attitudes of “The Long 1960s,” the law guaranteed that the young Americans being sent to Vietnam could, in theory, pick up a ballot before they picked up their gun.
Since then, what’s become known as the “youth vote” has been a hot topic each election season. People work to study, understand and predict trends in turnout rates among young voters. One thing seems clear: if you want them to care, you’ve got to give them a reason to care. Get them excited and don’t treat them like a novelty. When now-President Obama campaigned in 2008, he made the youth of America feel included and important, making sure to pop up wherever they were, both in the real and cyber world. That November, young voter turnout was the highest it had ever been.
As he signed the amendment, Nixon had this to say about young folks heading to the polls: “I sense that we can have confidence that America’s new voters, America’s young generation, will provide what America needs … not just strength and not just wealth … but a spirit of moral courage, a spirit of high idealism in which we believe in the American dream, but in which we realize that the American dream can never be fulfilled until every American has an equal chance to fulfill it in his own life.”
Yet today, 40 years later, “every American [having] an equal chance” seems like nothing more than a political soundbite. The voting trend of the moment is not increasing the pool of eligible voters, but restricting it. Voter ID laws are showing up in states all over the country, potentially disenfranchising numbers of elderly, black and Latino voters.
So let’s use today’s anniversary as an important reminder of what’s at stake. After all, it’s still possible for a group of enraged and informed people to change the course of democracy.
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