Nicolette Carrion did a little dance when she cast her first ballot ever in last year’s election.
“Now that I’m 18, I’m able to invest in my future in being able to vote, in a way I wasn’t able to before,” she said.
Carrion’s right to vote at age 18 comes because of the 26th amendment, which marks its 50th anniversary on Thursday.
“The 26th amendment is part of our country’s journey to expand and actually make our democracy more inclusive,” said Mike Burns, national director of the Campus Vote Project, an organization that works to remove barriers for students and provide information needed to vote.
When the 26th amendment was ratified on July 1, 1971, America was at war with Vietnam. Throughout US history, when necessary – such as during World War II and the Vietnam War – 18-year-olds were drafted for military conscription.
Those in favor of lowering the voting age argued that if 18-year-olds could serve their country at war, they should be able to vote for the commander-in-chief.
“Part of the push to adopt the 26th amendment was the ongoing protest movements of the Vietnam War. Before, protest movements were the only option [for young people], not actually being voters who could cast ballots about the very decisions that affect their lives,” Burns said.
In recent years, young people have demonstrated high levels of engagement, leading to historic youth voter turnout in the 2018 midterm elections and one of the highest youth voter turnout rates in the 2020 general election.
In 2020, half of young people ages 18-29 voted, according to research from Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts (CIRCLE), an 11-point jump from the 39% of young people ages 18-29 who voted in 2016.
According to census data analyzed by CIRCLE, youth voter turnout was as almost as high in 2020 as it was in 1972, the year after the 26th amendment was ratified.
“It’s the grandchildren and the great grandchildren of the folks who protested during the Vietnam War and the years before that, who are using that right, dealing with the unfinished business that’s been left for them. I think this generation is leading the charge for democratic reforms — whether it’s around climate change, systemic racism and oppression or economic inequality,” John Della Volpe, Director of Polling at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, said.
The nonpartisan States of Change project – which studies voting trends and demographic change – projects that in 2024 millennials and Generation Z – for the first time will represent a much larger share of eligible voters (nearly 45%). By 2028, millennials and Generation Z will make up almost exactly half of eligible voters, and those born before 1964 will fall below a third of voters.
For her part, Carolyn DeWitt, executive director of Rock the Vote, the longstanding nonpartisan voter registration organization, believes that what she called the “distinctly diverse generations, millennials and Gen Z,” are exceptionally engaged.
“There has absolutely been a change in the attitudes and behaviors of young people in recent years,” DeWitt said. “This idea that young people are apathetic and lazy could not be further from the truth. This is an extremely passionate youth generation.”
Abby Kiesa, director of Impact at CIRCLE, also emphasized the role that young people have played in encouraging youth civic participation in recent years.
“Young people were really reaching out to young people. We saw incredible amounts of youth leadership in 2018 and 2020 election,” Kiesa said.
“This is one of things that I think is really important for us to think about on this 26th amendment anniversary. It’s amazing that young people are taking leadership and involving other young folks in issues that are critical to our nation.”