On July 5, 1971 then president Richard Nixon certified the 26th Amendment to the United States Constitution lowering the nation-wide voting age to 18. The move had been a long time coming, with arguments in favor of it reaching back to World War II when the age of draft eligibility was expanded to include eighteen to thirty-seven-year-olds. The primary argument was that if one were old enough to be pressed into service for one’s country, then one ought to have the right to vote for the government doing the pressing.
While in principle most people didn’t disagree with that sentiment, the push to make the change didn’t initially gain much steam. People in their late teens were still cared for in many aspects of their lives and at the time, weren’t generally all that politically engaged. Polls in the 1940s suggested that the youth population was kind of meh about the whole notion of voting.
That started to shift with the next generation who were paying more attention to politics throughout the Korean War and Vietnam Conflict. In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act that awarded the right to vote to all citizens eighteen and up. It was a bipartisan, fairly popular issue, but it also wasn’t constitutional.
And so on March 23, 1971 Congress sent a new amendment to the states for ratification. It took one hundred days from Congressional proposal to presidential certification, the fastest ratification process of any of the twenty-seven amendments now included the US Constitution.
At that point eighteen was already considered the age of majority in many states, but after the 26th Amendment, it became almost universally so. There are still some age-related restrictions in some circumstances in some states, including two that don’t grant the legal authority to enter into a contract until age nineteen. But for the most part, unless you want to drink a beer or buy cigarettes, you are an adult in the US at age eighteen.
What this means is that this week my oldest son will register for the draft, register to vote, and eat birthday cake. If he so chooses, he could also buy a lottery ticket, parachute out of an airplane, get a tattoo, adopt a puppy, get married, pick up a bottle of cough medicine, serve on a jury, legally change his name, apply for a loan, obtain his commercial drivers’ license, become a notary public, have his tongue pierced, or get a job operating a meat slicer.
He could also move out of his parents’ house, which he would probably have to do if he decided to pursue some of those things. It’s strange, though, as I look over the list of his new rights and privileges, I’m feeling pretty calm about it.
Though they have included some very long days, these past eighteen years have also been a short time to teach him everything he needs to know to be a successful adult. I’m fairly certain that I haven’t managed to do it.
I am, however, just as certain that in those eighteen years he has become a confident, intelligent, resourceful, and resilient young man. I know that when he votes, he will do so thoughtfully, that he understands enough math not to bother with lottery tickets, and that if he decides to jump out of an airplane, he’s wise enough not to mention it to his mother. I still have a few meat-slicer-related concerns, but all-in-all, I think he’ll bump along just fine.
Welcome to adulthood, E!