Throughout the student movement of the 1960s, most American college students were denied the right to vote.
From the birth of the American republic the voting age had stood at 21. Pressure for earlier voting had been building since 18-year-olds were first drafted in the Second World War, but despite the baby boom, the student movements of the sixties, and the deaths of thousands of Americans under 21 in Korea and Vietnam, reform went nowhere for decades. It was only in May 1970, after National Guard troops shot and killed four students during a protest at Kent State University, that Congress finally took action.
In the aftermath of Kent State, with the nation reeling from the spectacle of its own troops gunning down its own students, the 18-year-old vote was introduced as an amendment to the Voting Rights Act. One senator threatened to filibuster the renewal of the Act if that amendment was not incorporated into it.
The Voting Rights Act, as amended, was signed into law by President Nixon that June. The Supreme Court declared the provision unconstitutional that winter, ruling that Congress didn’t have the power to enfranchise youth in state and local elections, but the Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, passed by Congress the following spring and ratified by the states in record time, gave 18-to-20-year-olds the vote for good.
That ratification came forty years ago today.
With the lowering of the voting age, college students became a significant voting bloc in American politics. In the 1970s, for the first time, students could exercise political power not just in the streets, but in the voting booth as well.
A new kind of student politics demanded a new kind of organizing, and so 1971 also saw the creation of the National Student Lobby, America’s first national student-funded, student-directed lobbying organization. State Student Associations (SSAs) and state student lobbies soon followed, making the 1970s an unprecedented boom-time for student electoral organizing.
The SSAs of the 1970s transformed American politics and higher education forever, altering the balance of power between students and educational institutions while giving students a voice in state and national politics that reached far beyond the campus.
Happy birthday, youth voting!