Progressing and Protecting Youth Voting Rights, Then and Now

By Jennifer Frost

Cover for "Let Us Vote!" Youth Voting Rights and the 26th Amendment by Jennifer Frost

In the November 2023 elections, the youth vote was a deciding factor in key state races and referenda, such as Ohio’s Issue 1 to protect a woman’s right to make her own reproductive decisions. This will be true again at the national level in 2024, with 8 million new voters joining the electorate next year. Since 2018, the votes of younger Americans have made a crucial difference in electing Democrats in federal and state elections, and they limited Republican gains when a “red wave” was predicted in 2022. They are poised to do so again.

Motivated by strong commitments to protecting our democracy, rights, and freedoms, young voters are registering and turning out to vote in higher numbers than in the past. The 2023 Wisconsin Supreme Court election is just one example, where abortion rights and extreme gerrymandering were at stake. The liberal candidate Janet Protasiewicz won by 11%, a margin of victory propelled by youth vote turnout.

In response, former Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy has called for raising the voting age to 25, with a few exceptions, and Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who worked to help Donald Trump overturn the 2020 presidential election, wants to make it harder for young people to vote. Republicans across the country are on board.

One popular mechanism implemented by a number of Republican-dominated state legislatures is to remove student IDs from the list of acceptable forms of voter identification. Given that many young Americans do not have driver’s licenses or another acceptable form of ID, such legislation disproportionately suppresses their ability to vote. Lawsuits in six states are challenging these laws. In Idaho, the plaintiffs argue this mechanism is a violation of the 26th Amendment.

Similar efforts at suppressing the youth vote occurred both before and after the achievement of the 26th Amendment which lowered the national voting age to 18 and prohibited discrimination in voting “on account of age” in 1971.

During the 1960s, as the movement to enfranchise 18- to 20-year-olds was growing and gaining traction across the country, a number of states held referenda to lower the voting age. Initiated and impelled by high school, college, and university students, Michigan held one in 1966. But due to strict residency requirements, even students aged 21 and up and enrolled in institutions of higher education away from their home towns were unable to vote in the referendum.

“Students Are Losing on Voter Requirements,” wrote an opinion writer for The Michigan Daily, the campus newspaper of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1966. Residency requirements suppressed “student voting in college towns throughout America,” he wrote. To vote in Ann Arbor, for example, a student had to be married, have their parents in town, or “pledge to live in the city for years beyond their college experience.” These requirements did not apply to any other group in the electorate and were “an injustice” that lowering the voting age to 18 would do nothing to fix.

Apprehension about student voters forming power blocs in smaller towns and cities contributed to “overwhelming opposition” to the referendum in the Michigan Townships Association, contributing to the referendum’s decisive defeat in November that same year.

Such apprehension increased with the 26th Amendment, and residency requirements continued to be used to suppress the youth vote. Take the following New York State law as an example: “Where the presence of an elector within a district is solely because of his attendance as a student in an institution of learning, whatever his intention may be, he not a resident there.” No residency, no voter registration.

City and county residents in many regions of the country supported such laws, because they feared being overwhelmed by the number of resident college students casting ballots. Amherst, Massachusetts, a city of 13,000 residents, had three campuses nearby—Amherst College, Hampshire College, and the University of Massachusetts—with a total of 21,035 students. When the Massachusetts Attorney General said that students may register to vote where they attend school, Amherst residents responded. “I just don’t think they should vote here—they’re only part-time residents.” “The feeling around here is, it’s time to move.”

In the early 1970s, students and their supporters fought back against voter suppression through legislation and litigation. The NAACP took a stance against “efforts in state legislatures to disenfranchise students by passage of restrictive residency laws,” and sought “provisions which allow students to designate their legal residence for voting purposes.”

At the same time, in a series of state Supreme Court cases in California, Michigan, New Jersey, and elsewhere, local election officials were ordered to register bona fide resident students. These cases culminated in the Supreme Court case Symm v. United States (1979), which held that students have the right to vote where they attend college or university. A 2017 New Hampshire court decision striking down a “proof of domicile law” similarly helps to protect youth voting rights.

Shoring up youth voting rights in the wake of the 26th Amendment and continuing today are innovative voter registration and mobilization initiatives. Credit for getting out the youth vote goes to young people themselves and to the many individuals and organizations dedicated to this vitally important cause. They carry on the legacy of the movement to win youth voting rights in the first place. It is a victory we cannot take for granted but one we can and must continue to build on to protect our future.

Jennifer Frost is a historian of 20th century United States society, politics, and culture at the University of Auckland, New Zealand and the author of “Let Us Vote!”: Youth Voting Rights and the 26th Amendment, now out in paperback.

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