Electronic Theses and Dissertations

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Ph.D. in History


Arch Dalrymple III Department of History

First Advisor

Charles W. Eagles

Second Advisor

Jessica Wilkerson

Third Advisor

Jarod H. Roll

Relational Format



This dissertation is a history of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Passed by Congress in 1971, it set the national suffrage age at eighteen for all state and federal elections. It remains the last federal amendment to broaden voting rights and the most quickly ratified amendment to the Constitution. Those few scholars who have written about the 18-vote law uniformly explain that it emerged as recompense for patriotic duty; i.e. if teenagers were old enough to fight for America in Vietnam, they were also old enough to vote in U.S. elections. This dissertation agrees that young Americans certainly deserved enfranchisement. It argues, however, that youth earned suffrage not as a reward for their public service but in recognition of their personal aptitude and political gumption. Beginning during World War II, federal lawmakers offered legislation to set eighteen as the national age of enfranchisement. In the 1960s, public support for the 18-vote swelled as young people challenged authoritarian institutions and orthodox values. Creative legislative maneuvering by a small group of dedicated congressmen managed to extend suffrage to 18-year-olds through an amendment to the Voting Rights Act of 1970. They steered the rider through a skeptical Congress by persuading their colleagues that adolescents were capable of mature deliberation and beneficial civic involvement. In an era when generational revolution appeared a real possibility, many legislators believed formally melding youths into the electoral fold would be a tenable way to sustain sociopolitical order. However, other lawmakers thought establishing youth suffrage via statute violated the Constitution. In 1970, the Supreme Court ruled in Oregon v. Mitchell that Congress could only regulate voting ages in federal elections and not for state or local polls. Congress reversed the Court’s decision by passing the Twenty-Sixth Amendment. After nearly thirty years of gestation, the 18-vote measure sailed through the Article V ratification process in record time – a mere 100 days – to become law in July 1971. Passage of the amendment induced state governments to lower the basic age of legal majority to eighteen for most ventures.

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