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Opinion >  Column

Spin Control: The 26th Amendment meant registering twice in 1971

Voters line up to deposit their ballots into a drop box at the Spokane Library South Hill branch in October 2020.   (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Voters line up to deposit their ballots into a drop box at the Spokane Library South Hill branch in October 2020.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

When editors asked me to write about the 50th anniversary of the passage of 18-year-olds being able to vote, it was partly because as a Baby Boomer I was the only person available who remembers it happening.

When Congress passed the 26th Amendment on March 23, 1971, I was 17. By the time it was ratified on July 1, I was 18. Along with registering for the draft, which was obligatory, I could register to vote.

In my mind, the two were inextricably linked. People who were old enough to be drafted or enlist – and some of my high school classmates did enlist that summer after graduation – were old enough to vote. Full stop. End of argument.

Registering for the draft was pretty simple. Go to the Selective Service office, fill out a form with name, address and birth date, and get a card in the mail in a few weeks. Mine said I was 1-H, a temporary classification until I had a physical after my number was drawn in the lottery. Under penalty of law I was to keep my draft card with me at all times. I still have it.

Registering to vote also was simple. I went to the city hall in the suburb where I lived, filled out a registration form and showed the nice lady behind the counter my driver’s license to prove my age. I had to show my birth certificate two years earlier to get my license, so that proved I was old enough.

There were no questions about whether I was a citizen because I was a white kid in the suburbs and no one really doubted I was American, even if they suspected I might vote to overthrow the existing government. I was prepared to show my draft card, but she didn’t ask to see it. Darn.

I was anxious to vote, but there were no municipal or state elections where I lived in 1971, so I didn’t have a chance to cast a ballot until the next year.

Some experts predicted the linkage between drafting people for the unpopular Vietnam War and lowering the voting age to 18 would lead to a tsunami at the polls in 1972 for the first presidential election where those young voters could cast a ballot. After all, young volunteers had “come clean for Gene” McCarthy when he mounted his anti-war campaign against President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, and flocked to Bobby Kennedy’s campaign that year before he was assassinated.

Now, the heart of the Baby Boom, the pig in the python of American demographics, was going to be voting three years earlier.

Richard Nixon had claimed to have a secret plan for ending the war when he ran in 1968, but as 1972 approached the plan remained secret and Democrats were lining up to challenge him. Anti-war demonstrations were roiling college campuses that spring, and Sen. George McGovern won the nomination with a call to bring the troops home.

But demography is not destiny, at least it wasn’t in 1972. McGovern ran a terrible campaign and Nixon ran a very good – although it turned out later illegal – one.

In the spring of 1972, the United States started Vietnamizing the war – shifting more responsibility to South Vietnam – and the number of men drafted was cut in half that year with plans to eliminate the draft in 1973. My number drawn that February was 292, and the draft stopped at the low single digits. I never had to report for a physical, so I’m still 1-H.

Lowering the voting age to 18 actually led to a drop in turnout from which the country didn’t recover until 2004, said Todd Donovan, a professor of political science at Western Washington University.

The number of eligible young voters grew by 13 million in 1972, but the percentage of voters under 25 who voted actually dropped, the U.S. Census Bureau said. Voter turnout was about 61% in 1968 and 55% in 1972.

The reason is simple math, Donovan said: The number of eligible voters in the country increased immediately by adding 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds, but fewer of them voted. In the formula used for voter participation, the denominator got bigger much faster than the numerator.

“The youngest voters are always the least likely to vote,” Donovan said. “It’s a habit that’s learned.”

When the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote, there was an even bigger drop in turnout – from 61% in 1916 to 42% in 1920 – because suddenly the number of eligible voters almost doubled overnight and not all women voted.

Turnout recovered relatively quickly after the 19th Amendment, Donovan said. By 1928 it was almost 57%. Not so with the 26th Amendment. It continued to decline through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, possibly because there were more young people than old people.

The first uptick in voters 24 years old or younger was in 2004, possibly because the presidential campaigns made such a big push to get out the young vote, Donovan said.

By then, Baby Boomers who were the first to register when they turned 18 were in their 40s and 50s, a time when people are more likely to vote.

Turnout didn’t top 1968 until last year, when it hit 62% in part a result of an increase in voting among 18- to 29-year olds. Considering I’ve been critical of Millennial and Gen Z voter participation in the past, it seems now they’d be justified in saying “OK Boomer.”

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