My series on the Amendments to the United States Constitution has now reached its penultimate entry. Today, we look at the Twenty-sixth.
Ratified in 1971, the amendment’s main provision succinctly states:
The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.
As a Vietnam-era change, the move to align voting age with the military draft made sense to substantial number of citizens and lawmakers. So much so that it was the quickest Amendment to be ratified after passage by the Congress.
For those generations alive during the change in voting age from 21 to 18, the Amendment’s effect will likely never be forgotten. For the rest of us–having grown up with this policy since birth–it seems strange and almost quaint that it wasn’t this way since Day One.
Yet by implying–with the draft and the vote–that adulthood begins at 18, the results of this change also raise questions about maturity that reverberate in the present. For while voting at 18 sounds great immediately following the decade in which the combination of a significant military draft, war, and concomitant political action by youth came to a head, it makes less immediate sense in our less active era.
Make no mistake: I’m not saying we should change it back to 21. I’m simply stating that some of the philosophical and social force behind “voting at 18” is much less strong today. Though many brave young people have served beginning at 18 in places like Iraq or Afghanistan, there is no longer a compulsory draft. There is no longer the same political focus, dialogue, and involvement from college-age students as we saw in the 1960s. 18-year olds of today do not face the draft, and just don’t have to care as much about these matters as they did when–for many–their life literally depended upon it.
And then, of course, we continue today to consider the problem of “extended adolescence” among many of our youth. A process that begins biologically around 10-12 for some does not have a societal end until the mid-20s or even 30. It is a common complaint that people simply aren’t “growing up” as quickly as they have in previous generations.
The fact that our drinking age sits at 21 while voting, smoking, and the draft hover around 18 further complicates the picture of adulthood in the United States. Though not an argument for lowering all barriers to drinking, it does point out an apparent inconsistency and disagreement about when full adult citizenship is achieved and what it means.
How we as a country understand personal/political maturity and raise the next generation to embrace that maturity are good questions for us to consider. Helping 18-year-olds understand the stakes and place of their vote, citizenship, and more is a continuing part of this, even as other societal forces may continue to keep them ensconced in the world of adolescence.