The voting age in America is set at 18, but how was this decision made? The history of the voting age reveals a deep debate about federal authority dating back to the drafting of the US Constitution. We’ll explore this history and see how the debate changed over time.

The Voting Age

In the United States, turning 18 is a big deal. You are legally an adult, which means you can manage your own finances, get a tattoo and legally stay out after midnight. Oh yeah, and you can vote. Of all the rights in a democratic society, the right to vote is among the most important. That concepts defines American republicanism, so achieving this right is a really big deal. Americans today can vote at age 18, but this wasn’t always the case. As with so many other things, our ideas about voting rights have changed over time.

Voting is a major part of American democracy
Voting sticker

Voting through the 19th Century

While voting was seen as a big deal to early Americans, we didn’t always agree on who deserved this right. When the United States was first founded, it entered a world in which voting was not a widespread concept. In England, only those of privileged wealth and status could vote. The news states of America couldn’t quite agree on how they felt about this, so they decided to keep voting rights an issue of state, not federal politics. In fact, when the Constitution was ratified in 1788, it made no mention of a federal voting age. It was up to the states. In most cases, you had to be 21 years old, and a white, male, landowning protestant to vote.

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Social changes in the early 19th century led to the first major voting reforms. In the 1820s, contested elections convinced many people that broader suffrage, or the right to vote, was needed. By 1830, religion and property requirements had been abolished in almost all state constitutions, although suffrage was still only guaranteed to white males over the age of 21. The last state to remove restrictions on universal white, male suffrage was North Carolina in 1856.

The expansion of male suffrage caught the attention of female activists, who in 1848 organized for the first time at the Seneca Falls convention in New York. These activists declared that women should have the right to vote. However, women would not be the next group to receive suffrage. That would fall upon freed African Americans at the end of the Civil War. In 1868, former slaves were guaranteed citizenship with the passing of the Fourteenth Amendment. Black males were guaranteed the right to vote in 1870 with the passing of the Fifteenth Amendment, although some Southern states adopted literacy and education tests to limit access to the polls.

Voting in the 20th Century

As the 20th century began, all males 21 or older could legally vote. However, women still couldn’t, and many white women were particularly upset that black males received suffrage before them. This spurned a new wave of activism. Wyoming was the first territory, and then state, to grant universal suffrage to women. It would not be until after World War I, however, that this became a national measure. The Nineteenth Amendment granted women the right to vote in 1920.

Female suffrage poster from 1917

The Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments represented a huge shift in American politics. For the first century of the nation’s existence, voting rights were seen as a matter of state’s rights. The federal government wasn’t supposed to tell states who could and couldn’t vote. Suddenly, this was becoming a federal issue.

Achieving the Modern Voting Age

So when was the voting age lowered to 18? After World War II, American society continued to change. In 1964 the Civil Rights Act was passed, prohibiting segregation, and in 1965 the Voting Rights Act prohibited states from restricting access to the polls through literacy tests or other discriminatory means. Along with this new focus on voting rights, American youth began to demand a federally-mandated, lower national voting age. Various student bodies, including students with the California Teacher’s Association and the National Education Association, started grassroots protests across the country that quickly gained incredible momentum. By 1970, these groups had achieved enough support to convince President Nixon to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1970, lowering the voting age to 18.

Don’t get too excited just yet. In the court case Oregon v. Mitchell, the Supreme Court ruled that the president did not constitutionally have the power to tell states what their voting age should be. Therefore, the Voting Rights Act only applied to federal, not state elections. Full change could only come from a constitutional amendment. Arguing that higher high school graduation rates and greater access to college made the youth of the 1970s more mature than their predecessors, advocates managed to get the Twenty-sixth Amendment introduced to Congress in 1971. In a very rare moment of political unity, the Senate voted 94-0 in favor of the Amendment. The House passed it as well, and within four months 3/4 of the states had ratified it. No amendment in US history was adopted quicker, and the democratic process was opened up to millions of Americans 18-20 years old. Now that’s a big deal.

Today, states in blue even allow 17-year olds to vote in primaries, if they will be 18 by the election

Lesson Summary

For a long time, the federal government of the United States did not mandate a voting age. This was the discretion of the states, but over time social and political changes began to alter this tradition. At first, most states only opened voting to white, landowning, protestant males over 21. Suffrage was opened to most white males over 21 in the 1830s by state, not federal, constitutional changes. Then, the federal government adopted the Fifteenth Amendment after the Civil War, granting freed black males the right to vote. This precedent would be followed with the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment, granting suffrage to women in 1920. Voting age itself would not become a federal issue until 1970, when nation-wide student protests prompted Nixon to lower the national voting age to 18. However, a constitutional amendment was needed to make it legal. The Twenty-sixth Amendment was ratified in just four months, and in 1971 set the national voting age at 18, opening up the democratic process to millions of American youth. See why turning 18 is such a big deal?