16-Year-Olds Want a Vote. Fifty Years Ago, So Did 18-Year-Olds.
By Maggie Astor
May 19 2019
JAMESBURG, N.J. — Stuart Goldstein still has the red-and-white bumper stickers and other artifacts from 1969, when he helped persuade New Jersey lawmakers that 18-year-olds should be able to vote.
He was 18 himself then, working with two other college students, David DuPell and Ken Norbe, to build a political network that grew to 10,000 volunteers. They took students to Trenton in busloads and even sneaked into a Richard Nixon rally seeking his support. Theirs was an early salvo in a movement that would end in 1971 with the ratification of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18 from 21.
Fifty years later, there is a nascent movement to change the voting age again — this time to 16 — but there are some big differences between the efforts.
Then, liberal and conservative activists united behind a powerful argument that went back to World War II, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt lowered the draft age to 18: Young people were being conscripted to fight America’s wars but couldn’t vote in its elections.
Today, there is no similarly popular argument. Indeed, a recent poll found that 75 percent of registered voters opposed letting 17-year-olds vote, and 84 percent opposed it for 16-year-olds. In March, when Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts proposed a 16-year-old voting age amendment to House Democrats’ sweeping voting rights bill, it failed 126 to 305, with almost half of her fellow Democrats voting against it and only one Republican in support.
Opponents in both parties have expressed doubts that 16-year-olds are mature enough to vote. But local, youth-led campaigns to lower the voting age have persisted since at least 2013, when Takoma Park, Md., gave 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote in municipal elections.
The New York Times recently spoke with activists from the movement 50 years ago, and people on different sides of the issue today, about the cause and the challenges of lowering the voting age.
1969: ‘Old enough to fight’
By the time New Jersey took it up in 1969, the voting age had been on the national radar for decades because of the draft. Through World War II, Korea and the early years of Vietnam, every president suggested it should change. But it didn’t — until the 1960s knocked American politics off its axis.
The activism of the era made it easy to mobilize liberals and students, many of whom were already involved in the antiwar and civil rights movements. “People were pretty revved up during that time to get involved in something,” said Mr. DuPell, who started the New Jersey campaign and recruited Mr. Goldstein and Mr. Norbe to join him. But campus unrest and violent protests helped fuel pushback that they were too immature to vote.
“It was kind of an uphill battle for us trying to convince people young people were responsible, because it was an era when, from a national political point of view, the national leaders were pitting young against old,” Mr. Goldstein, now 68, said. “Our thing was, ‘We’re going to try and work within the system.’ There was all this tumult going on across the country. We didn’t think that would help us convince people that they should lower the voting age.”
In April 1969, the Republican-led New Jersey Legislature approved a state constitutional amendment to lower the voting age to 18. And when summer came, Mr. DuPell, Mr. Goldstein and Mr. Norbe went home to build their organization — they called it the Voting Age Coalition Inc. of New Jersey — and round up support for the voter referendum needed to ratify the amendment.
They appointed county leaders, who appointed municipal leaders. They sold membership cards for a dollar and told the buyers to recruit 10 volunteers apiece. When President Nixon came to campaign for William Cahill, who was eventually elected governor, Mr. Goldstein and Mr. DuPell forged press credentials and sneaked into the rally with a sign seeking Nixon’s endorsement. Mr. Goldstein recalled that Secret Service agents carried him out, but their sign ended up in a front-page photo the next day.
Similar efforts were bubbling up in other states. Sometime in the spring, a group of students in Ohio contacted the New Jerseyans and asked if they, too, could use the “Voting Age Coalition” name. By January 1970, students in 13 states were organizing to lower the voting age.
Voters in New Jersey rejected their amendment, and the Voting Age Coalition started trying to lower the age to 19 instead. But it soon became clear that the momentum in Washington, driven by the combined force of the states, was building faster.