Mark Bennett: Effort to give 18-year-olds the vote wouldn't have succeeded in 2021

Tribune-Star file/Joseph C. Garza Nice to meet you: The late Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh, right, introduces himself to Barbara Ford after his speech Monday, Oct. 6, 2008, on Wabash Avenue in Terre Haute.

America was more open-minded in 1971 than today, at least in one circumstance.

The 26th Amendment to the Constitution turned 50 years old this month. It gave young Americans ages 18 through 20 years the right to vote. Eleven-million people fit into that demographic in 1971. A year later, 52% of them voted in the 1972 presidential election.

Such an expansion of voting rights could never happen in 2021. It’s unimaginable.

Consider the 26th Amendment’s passage. The U.S. Senate approved the amendment — drafted by Indiana’s own Sen. Birch Bayh in his Senate Judiciary Committee — unanimously, 94-0 on March 10, 1971, far exceeding the required two-thirds margin. Two weeks later, the House approved by a whopping 401-19.

Then, within the span of 10 weeks, the constitutionally necessary 38 states ratified the 26th Amendment, etching young Americans’ right to vote into the Constitution. It marked the fastest ratification of a constitutional amendment in history.

Then, Republican President Richard Nixon expressed his support of the amendment by ceremonially signing it.

Those outcomes were achieved through a now-arcane process known as “bipartisanship.”

A present-day political strategist might ask, “How could the political parties allow such a thing to happen?” After all, the actions of those state legislators, members of Congress and a president had essentially flooded the electorate with potentially 11 million new voters.

The parties had no time to meticulously calculate how many of those young people would vote Republican or Democratic, and that calculation, of course, is the 21st-century litmus test for state or federal legislation that would expand voting access.

Yet, the 26th Amendment happened.

It didn’t emerge during some blissful era of unity. The Vietnam War raged, protests over its policies and other social injustices often spilled into American streets, and a segregationist candidate — Alabama Gov. George Wallace — had just two years earlier gotten 13% of the vote for U.S. president. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, also in 1968. Divisions through America ran deep.

The war actually dismantled resistance to previous attempts to lower the voting age, dating back as far as World War II. Indeed, the 26th Amendment didn’t happen overnight in 1971.

“It had at least a couple decades of momentum behind it,” said Aaron Dusso, chair of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis’ political science department.

Two forces led a divided country to support voting for 18-year-olds, explained Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue University Fort Wayne. First, the nation had experienced landmark progress in civil rights through the past few years, from the March on Washington to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. So, big change had a track record then.

“Second, in the early 1970s, it was easy to identify a large, diverse population that was being excluded from participating in elections,” Downs said. “And that group was paying a disproportionate price for that exclusion.”

Change began in 1970. Congress began discussing a constitutional amendment, and President Nixon signed a change in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, lowering the age limit to 18. States challenged the change. The Supreme Court ruled that Congress could only change the federal voting age, according to Bayh’s obituary in the New York Times. That left states the burden of keeping two separate voter rolls.

Bayh and others in Congress began drafting the constitutional amendment that would streamline the voting age at 18, making it the law for federal, state and local elections. The 26th Amendment formally was added to the Constitution on July 1, 1971, after the 38th state, North Carolina, ratified it. Bayh’s home Hoosier state was the 18th to approve it.

“There was strong enough groundswell, obviously with Vietnam and the hypocrisy of being able to draft 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds and sending them off to die in some foreign country, but not letting them vote,” Dusso explained. “It was just too much, and there was overwhelming bipartisan support, with Richard Nixon signing the constitutional amendment, and then having the states ratify it.”

It was the second constitutional amendment Bayh had drafted. He also wrote the 25th Amendment on presidential succession and disability. No other American outside of the Founding Fathers penned more than one constitutional amendment.

Of the 26th, Bayh once said, “I had the good fortune to be able to right an injustice that I thought was being heaped on young people by lowering the voting age. You had young people that were old enough to die in Vietnam, but not old enough to vote for their members of Congress that sent them there.”

Average Americans backed the lowered voting age, too. A majority favored the 26th Amendment, according to a Gallup poll. Its opponents grumbled that teenagers — today’s late-career and retired baby boomers — knew little about civics or history, and were ill-prepared to vote. Those naysayers were outnumbered and failed to acknowledge that older voters could be just as naïve.

If that scenario played out in 2021, when Republican states are restricting voting as a backlash of Donald Trump’s loss to Democratic rival Joe Biden in November’s presidential election, the 26th Amendment would languish in gridlock, no matter how right it is.

“I don’t think a massive, bipartisan expansion of voting rights is possible in 2021, the way it was in 1971,” Downs said.

Dusso agreed. “If we were still in a world where [the voting age] was 21, and it was being proposed today, I would bet against it ever getting through Congress, much less getting through the states,” Dusso said. “Because, right now we’re in a situation where a large portion of the country seemingly is disinterested in anything that might make voting easier.”

Thank goodness, Bayh, Nixon, Congress and state legislators found a way to make it happen, a half-century ago.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.