Fifty years ago this month, the 26th Amendment was ratified, granting 18-year-olds the right to vote and immediately enfranchising more than 10 million new voters.
Although the 26th had the fastest path to ratification of any of the 27 Constitutional amendments—taking just 100 days to go from passage by Congress to becoming the law of the land—it took many years of lobbying by grassroots and community organizations to lay the groundwork.
Whitman College alum Ian MacGowan ’61 played a major role in the effort.
A psychology major, MacGowan says he wasn’t particularly interested in politics as a student. After graduating, he moved to Washington, D.C. to pursue a graduate degree, but realized he didn’t want a career in academia. He took a job with a law firm in the District, and ended up doing lobbying.
“I was young, I was teachable and I had some good mentors,” MacGowan says. He lobbied for corporations, labor unions, public agencies and nonprofits, and as his knowledge of political processes grew, so too did his interest in politics. In particular, he was strongly opposed to the Vietnam War—and he started to wonder how he could use his lobbying background to help put an end to it. He found an opportunity in 1968 when he was asked to lead the national campaign for the 18-year-old vote as director of the Youth Franchise Coalition.
Although the campaign MacGowan led was launched in 1968, calls to lower the voting age to 18 had been around since the 1940s. Early proponents included Warren Magnuson, a Democrat who had raised an 18-year-old vote bill in his home state of Washington before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1944, and Jennings Randolph, also a Democrat, who served West Virginia first as a member of the House of Representatives and later as a Senator.
Their support was in response to President Franklin Roosevelt’s decision in 1941 to lower the military draft age from 21 to 18 in an effort to boost troop support for WWII. Randolph, who would later become known as the father of the 26th Amendment, argued: “If you’re old enough to fight and die for your country, then you are old enough to vote.” He introduced legislation to lower the voting age not just once, but 11 times.
“The issue had public support, but never got through the system because many of the people in the decision-making part of Congress didn’t want it to happen,” says MacGowan.
A Second Chance
The 18-year-old vote regained momentum in the 1960s as another military conflict escalated: the Vietnam War. The comparison between the age requirements for military service and voting was again a crucial selling point, MacGowan explains.
The organization he directed, the Youth Franchise Coalition, came out of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (now called the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights), which was then composed of around 80 organizations, including the NAACP, National Education Association, Council of Churches, League of Women Voters, Young Republicans and Young Democrats, who were working on the Voting Rights Act.
“It was the core of people that cared about the 18-year-old vote, which gave us a tremendous resource to reach out to different constituencies to use in the campaign,” says MacGowan.
MacGowan and his fellow activists started their campaign at ground level, in the states. “Because of the coalition we had, we could reach out to churches, we could reach out to Young Republicans, to labor unions, to corporations that were supporting the issue in their home states,” he says. They had those bodies reach out to the political representatives that shared their affinity or interest—for instance, a very pro-labor senator would be contacted by labor unions in their constituency and encouraged to support the campaign.
Though many of the lawmakers in favor were young and had less political sway, the activists formed alliances with them to build their confidence in the issue. Several powerful leaders were on their side too. In addition to Randolph and Magnuson, proponents included Senator Barry Goldwater, who had been the Republican presidential nominee in 1964, and then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, a Democrat.
“[The issue] had been sitting around for years, and with the rising pressure from the war, you had people from both sides of Congress wanting to do something,” says MacGowan. “It improved their image, and it was a philosophical issue they believed in.”
Today, sentiment regarding issues related to voting—such as statehood for Washington, D.C., the disenfranchisement of citizens who have been convicted of felonies, restrictive polling station provisions and voter ID laws—is often aligned with a particular political party. But the movement to lower the federal voting age had supporters and detractors amongst both Democrats and Republicans, MacGowan says.
“It wasn’t a partisan issue. We figured that out in the very beginning that we had to work with both sides of the aisle, find people who were championing the idea and start working with the people who didn’t believe in it and see if we could get some of those [to change their mind] so we could build a credible base.”
Persuading the issue’s opponents was especially challenging because they were not forthcoming about why they were not in favor. “It was hard to get any specific reason,” MacGowan says. “But the basic political reason was that they were afraid of their constituencies.”
Whether they were out in the community or on Capitol Hill, MacGowan says, the activists wore professional attire and approached the people who were on the fence or wouldn’t commit to it in a friendly, collaborative manner to soften them to the issue.
“We didn’t want it to be confrontational. With the war going on, there were plenty of protests and riots, but ours was a very staid political strategy.”
Even so, the 18-year-old vote ballot measure failed in all five states that held elections during that period. The silver lining was that the activists made plenty of alliances with politicians and campaign leaders in those states—and the defeat energized many of them.
A Turning Point
Back on Capitol Hill, renewal of the 1965 Voting Rights Act was going through Congress. Young senators Edward Kennedy and Birch Bayh sought the counsel of Constitutional experts, who opined that it was legal and appropriate for the voting age to be lowered by statute. Their enthusiasm ignited support for the approach from some members of the old guard, and in 1970, Kennedy persuaded Congress to add a provision to the Voting Rights Act that guaranteed citizens 18 years and older the right to vote in local, state and federal elections.
“This is where public policy and strategy comes in,” MacGowan says. “We built the power, we built the interest, but it took the leadership to be able to make Congress produce.”
Several states challenged the constitutionality of lowering the voting age via the provision in the Voting Rights Act. So did President Nixon and Attorney General John Mitchell. The issue came before the Supreme Court, which ruled that citizens 18 and older could vote in federal elections, but that Congress could not set that requirement for state and local elections.
The December 1970 ruling meant that most states would have to maintain two separate registration and voting procedures, an expensive and inefficient prospect. With the 1972 national election and a bureaucratic nightmare looming, Congress swiftly proposed and passed lowering the voting age by constitutional amendment within three months. The proposed 26th Amendment, which guaranteed the minimum voting age could not be higher than 18, was sent to the state legislatures for their consideration. Ratification was complete by July 1, 1971.
After his work on the 18-year-old vote, MacGowan continued his career in public policy, working on successful campaigns that led to great change, including Washington state’s AIDS Omnibus Act. Passed in 1988, the comprehensive act defined the way the state would provide AIDS care services, ordered AIDS education in public school, and guaranteed civil rights to people with the disease. It was the first such act in the United States, and became a model for the rest of the country.
Today, MacGowan is involved with several projects documenting and commemorating the work that went into lowering the voting age. In addition to helping create an archive of the history, he is also part of a forthcoming documentary film, and is collaborating with the Close Up Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan civic education organization, on a program that will be used in high schools around the country starting this fall. He has also contributed to a book, “Let Us Vote: Youth Voting Rights and the 26th Amendment” by Jennifer Frost to be published in December 2021.