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Twenty-five Years of 18-Year-Old Voting

By Jonathan Karl/CNN Image of 1971 Grads

WASHINGTON (June 28) -- Imagine being called to fight, kill and even die for your country, but not being allowed to vote. Many people had good a reason to protest the Vietnam War.

Throughout most of American history, 18-year-olds fought in our wars, but you had to be 21 to vote. That changed 25 years ago this week, when President Nixon certified the 26th Amendment, lowering the voting age to 18.

"The reason I believe that your generation, the 11 million new voters, will do so much for America at home is that you will infuse into this nation some idealism, some courage, some stamina, some high moral purpose, that this country always needs," President Nixon said in 1971. (383K WAV sound of Nixon)

Nixon invited 500 newly eligible voters to the White House for that signing ceremony.

Today their peers -- those first affected by the 26th Amendment -- include a high-profile Democrat in Congress, a top Republican player and President Clinton's press secretary.

Spokesman Mike McCurry turned 18 just two weeks before the 1972 presidential election. "If we were old enough to go to Vietnam, we were certainly old enough to choose the president who might send us," McCurry said.

Image of Matalin, Kennedy and McCurry

Today Mary Matalin is a combative Republican partisan, but as an 18 year old she didn't exercise her newly won right in the '72 election. She says she would have voted for Nixon, "Because I was pretty much ... that's hard to say, I was pretty much a liberal hippie chick in those days. I might have voted for McGovern, who knows?"

Says Congressman Joe Kennedy (D-MA), "It was a very, very tearing, sort of gut-wrenching issue of the time." Kennedy was 18 when the 26th amendment passed. His father, Bobby Kennedy had championed the lower voting age a decade earlier.

"The young people's movement in America became something that some politicians felt very comfortable with and others felt very threatened by," Kennedy stated. "My father happened to feel very comfortable with it." (119K WAV sound of Kennedy)

Even as 18, 19 and 20 year-olds were sent off to fight in Vietnam, opponents argued that they were simply too young to be trusted with the right to vote. In 1970, nine states rejected proposals to lower the voting age.

But in 1971, it took just over two months for the required 38 states to ratify the 26th Amendment -- the quickest ratification in history.

Most observers thought the new voters would cast their ballots for Democratic challenger George McGovern, an opponent of the Vietnam War. But Richard Nixon ending up winning 49 states in one of the biggest landslides in American history.

"After Nixon won in 49 states," Kennedy chuckled, "those that were the drivers behind the movement said, 'Oh well, next time!'"

Today registering to vote is basic rite of passage for most high school seniors:

Image of Nixon and McGovern

"I get my voice," said one young voter. "Yeah, I'm excited. I was excited when I got my registration card."

"I feel it's something that I've been waiting to do for about two years," another said. "It's a privilege."

"I registered through my school and I sent the papers and that's about it," said a more blase young voter.

And politically minded 18 to 20 year-olds do more than just vote. They play important roles in political campaigns, and when organized can demand the attention of top political leaders.

"The most important thing we have to do is invest in the mental capability of young people," declared Rep. Richard Gephardt, the House Minority Leader.

At their recent national convention in Washington, the College Democrats conducted workshops on the nuts and bolts of campaigning. They also met with Vice President Al Gore and held rallies on Capitol Hill. Before the 26th Amendment most of these college students would not even have been able to vote.

Jennifer Parkinson of the College Democrats says, "I do consider myself not just part of the political process, but I am the political process. It's more than just voting -- I like to put the candidates that are important to me in office." (119K WAV sound of Parkinson)

Youth Voter Turnout Graph

But the legacy of the 26th Amendment is mixed. Youth turnout has steadily declined since 1972, when 50 percent of 18 to 24 year-olds voted. By 1988, youth turnout plummeted to 36 percent. It rebounded a bit in 1992, but remains well behind the turnout of older voters.

Kennedy says the low voting rates have cost young people dearly: "If the politicians in Washington today thought they'd have to pay a price for sending the deficit to our kids, there'd be no budget deficit -- we'd solve the budget deficit."

But election expert Curtis Gans of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate says that, despite the disappointment, the 26th Amendment has had a major impact on American politics during its first 25 years.

"The result of 25 years if nothing else is for several million young people to have gotten their minds, their bodies and their ballots engaged in American politics," Gans stated.

This story originally appeared on CNN's "Inside Politics."

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