One of the more overlooked results from the 2020 election is progressive states like California rejecting the lowering of the voting age.
In Pacific Research Institute’s post-election podcast, I gave some insight into why Proposition 18, a ballot measure that allowed a 17-year-old to vote during an election year as long as they turn 18 before the general election, failed. The measure was put on the ballot by the state legislature and is the third attempt to adjust the voting age. Based on the current election results, Prop. 18 only won six out of 58 California counties. In San Francisco, Proposition G also failed, which would have given 16-year-old residents the ability to vote in local elections.
But California isn’t the only progressive state to surprisingly reject a lower voting age.
Coloradans voted yes on Amendment 76 on election day, which amends the Centennial State constitution to prohibit voting under the age of 18. According to the Coloradoan, it was passed by more than 800,000 votes. In 2019, the Colorado legislature supported a measure to allow 17-year-old voting in election year primaries as long as they turned 18 before the fall general election.
Both Colorado and California rebuffed their state lawmakers. Despite their progressive public policy, the state results mirror historical efforts to lower the American voting age.
The Twenty-Sixth Amendment is only a generation and a half old as 18-year-olds secured the right to the vote in 1971. Before the 1970s, the nearly 100-year-old Fourteenth Amendment locked the voting age at 21.
Attempts to the lower the voting age during World War II failed, as well as over 150 Congressional resolutions between 1942 and 1970, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. In response to a patchwork of state and local laws, Congress proposed the Twenty-Sixth Amendment in March 1971 to grant 18-year-olds the right to vote. The states ratified the amendment four months later in July 1971.
Why voters are rejecting these efforts to further lower the voting age is not clear. My theory is most voters misunderstand the intent of the proposition. Upon first glance, voters may have thought that the proposition would have changed the voting age from 18-years-old to 17, instead of the added qualifier that they would have to be 18 by the November general election in order to vote in a primary or general election. Or maybe older voters don’t think a 17-year-old should be able to vote.
Currently, 18 states and Washington, D.C. allow a 17-year-old to vote in a primary as long as they turn 18 before the general election in the fall. Although San Francisco’s effort failed, cities in Maryland have approved 16-year-olds to vote in local elections.
When you look at the history of 18-year-old voting, it is clear that states are essentially side-stepping the Twenty-Sixth Amendment and creating the very patchwork of laws Congress tried to stop 49 years ago. California and Colorado may have stopped lower the voting age this year, but these measures will surely be back on state and local ballots in the future. Takoma Park, Maryland, approved a 16-year-old voting age in 2013. I reached out to Timothy Male, one of the former Takoma Park city council members who led the push for younger voting rights.
Male said, “If politicians believe the voting age should be lower then vote to do so. Don’t hide behind a referendum. But if you must have a referendum, lower the voting age first, and then ask people, ‘do you want to take away these young people’s rights?’ I’m confident that two-step approach would win voting rights for 16- and 17-year-olds.”
Californians rejected that approach with the defeat of Prop. 18. But with these various state and local efforts, would Congress come together to pass a Twenty-Eighth Amendment to lower the voting age to stop another patchwork of voting laws?
I wouldn’t count on it anytime soon.
Evan Harris is PRI’s media relations and outreach manager.