arrowSection 1.1 - Registration Rules

This topic is monitored by Moritz Law Professor Terri L. Enns

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Why Can't Older Kids Vote?

In 1970, Congress amended the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to lower the minimum voting age in federal and state elections to eighteen. 1  In response to a claim that the statutory amendments were unconstitutional, the United States Supreme Court held in Oregon v. Mitchell 2  that "Congress can fix the age of voters in national elections, such as congressional, senatorial, vice-presidential and presidential elections." 3  Nevertheless, the Court held that Congress did not have the authority to establish the voting age in state and local elections. According to the Court, states have the power under Article I, §2 of the Constitution to determine qualifications of their own voters in state and local elections except to the extent that other amendments to the Constitution have limited that power. 4  Thus the Court invalidated those statutory provisions lowering the voting age to eighteen in state and local elections. 5 

However, there remained considerable political pressure to lower the voting age to eighteen in all elections. The impetus for reform stemmed from a growing sense that it was unfair to send eighteen-year-olds to fight in the Vietnam War without allowing them to participate in the political process. 6  The level of participation by college students in the civil rights and anti-war movements also demonstrated a significant interest in political and social involvement. 7  Moreover, eighteen-year-olds were thought to be "mentally and emotionally capable of full participation in our democratic form of government." 8  In response, Congress enacted the Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which experienced the fastest ratification of any amendment in our history. 9 

The Twenty-Sixth Amendment states that the right of any citizen who is eighteen years of age or older may not be abridged or denied by the United States or any state on account of age. 10  Thus no state may deny the right to vote to any person who is at least eighteen years of age because of her age. Nevertheless, a state statute limiting the right to vote in primaries to those eighteen years of age and older did not violate the Twenty-Sixth Amendment. In Gaunt v. Brown, the Supreme Court summarily affirmed a lower court decision upholding an Ohio statute that precluded seventeen-year-olds who would be eighteen at the time of the general election from voting in a primary. 11  The Amendment thus did not limit the power the state otherwise has to establish voter qualifications.

Therefore, the United States Constitution does not prohibit any state from lowering the voting age. For example, Maine recently enacted a law permitting anyone who will be eighteen years old by the time of the next general election to vote in the immediately preceding primary election for the selection of candidates. 12  Under Maryland law, a citizen may register to vote provided she will be eighteen on or before the day of the next succeeding general or special election. 13  Consequently, anyone who has registered may vote in a subsequent primary regardless of age. A number of other states also have considered lowering the voting age to sixteen or seventeen. 14 

Proponents of teen voting argue that children would benefit directly should they have the right to vote. Policymakers pay close attention to their constituents' opinions, if for no other reason than to secure reelection. Since children lack the ability to vote, policymakers can more easily ignore children's concerns without sacrificing a significant number of votes. 15  Enfranchisement will affirm that children are an important and valued segment of the larger community and ensure concomitantly greater political responsiveness. 16  Proponents of lowering the voting age thus argue that for any real shift in public policy to occur, children must be seen as a critical constituency.

The power of enfranchisement may be illustrated by considering the effectiveness of the American Association of Retired People (AARP). AARP lobbies on behalf of the elderly. The group is well-organized and has successfully pressured federal and state governments to provide funding and services for the elderly. Evidence of that success may be measured by dollars spent on social and other programs for the elderly poor. In 1990, average spending per poor senior citizen was $30,000, but only $2,700 per poor child. 17  These figures are even more startling when one considers that in 1990, the American population consisted of 65 million children under the age of eighteen but only 32 million senior citizens. 18 

Proponents of lowering the voting age also argue that enfranchising children may increase voter turnout. Not only will more people be eligible to vote, but they may vote more often. Proponents hypothesize that children may encourage their parents to vote as well. Thus, through their interest in the political process and the conversations and debates that are likely to arise, both children and their families may be more interested in the political process. 19  Some even have argued that if the voting age were lowered to sixteen, when a child most likely still lives with a parent, may lead to lifelong electoral involvement for all members of the family. 20 

Some children also believe they deserve the right to vote. In many respects, older children have the same responsibilities and disabilities of adulthood. For example, children who work pay taxes; thus some claim that children are being taxed without representation. 21  For these proponents, eighteen is an arbitrary line; therefore, there is no reason why younger children should not be able to vote. 22 

Those who oppose lowering the voting age contend that there are a number of reasons why children under the age of eighteen may not be permitted to vote. First, opponents contend that children lack the knowledge to understand politics and the complex issues on which they may be asked to vote. For example, one study found that 26% of the teenagers surveyed could not name the Vice-President of the United States. 23  Others argue that children may be more easily influenced than other voters and could be persuaded to vote for particular candidates by other trusted adults, like teachers. Moreover, children have less of a stake in the democratic process because they do not suffer all the disabilities of adulthood. Finally, there is no reason to believe that younger children will vote in higher numbers given the low turnout among voters ages 18 to 24. 24 

In sum, most children under the age of eighteen may not vote in this country. Nevertheless there continues to be a growing movement to expand the right of enfranchisement. Current trends suggest that seventeen-year-olds are most likely to win the right to vote, although when and where that will occur remains uncertain.


1. Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1970, Pub. L. 91-285, 84 Stat. 314.

2. 400 U.S. 112 (1970).

3. Id. at 118.

4. Id. at 125.

5. Id. at 130.

6. Elizabeth S. Scott, The Legal Construction of Adolescence, 29 HOFSTRA L. REV. 547, 563 (2000).

7. Id.

8. Id.

9. Youth Vote Fact Sheet, at (last visited Aug. 31, 2004).


11. 341 F.Supp. 1187 (S.D. Ohio 1972), affirmed 409 U.S. 809 (1972).

12. 2004 Me. Legis. Serv. 577 (West).

13. Md. Code Ann., Election Law, § 3-102 (2004).

14. Susan Vermeer, Voting Age, at (last visited Aug. 31, 2004).

15. Jane Rutherford, One Child, One Vote: Proxies for Parents, 82 MINN. L. REV. 1463, 1494-95 (1998).

16. Id. at 1494.

17. Paul E. Peterson, An Immodest Proposal: Let's Give Children the Vote, 11 BROOKINGS REVIEW 18, 19 (1993).

18. Id. at 22.

19. Keith Mandell, Proposal to Lower the Voting Age, at 1, 3 (last visited Aug. 31, 2004).

20. Id. at 1.

21. Bobby C. Calvan, Californians Consider Granting 14-year-olds the Right to Vote, BOSTON GLOBE, Apr. 25, 2004, at  _14_year_olds_the_right_to_vote/

22. Id.

23. Mandell, supra note 20, at 14. Of course, the same survey found that 40% of the adult respondents could not name the Vice-President either.

24. Vermeer, supra note 15.