As ballot counting winds down from the 2022 midterms, it’s clear the disruptions many feared never materialized.
Different types of voting disruptions also were feared 50 years ago, in what Newsday’s editorial board referred to as “the extraordinary potential for trouble.”
The reason for the board’s alarm: the 26th Amendment. Passed in 1971, it lowered the voting age in the United States to 18; the previous limit had been 21. And the board was concerned about how all those new voters might stress the system.
“In both Nassau and Suffolk, the number of new registrants and the number of absentee ballots set records,” the board wrote in a Nov. 10, 1972 editorial, “and the period for processing new voters was extended closer to Election Day than ever before.”
The rush underscored the mind-boggling speed with which the amendment was adopted, after decades of futility. West Virginia Sen. Harvey Kilgore first pitched the reduced age in 1941 and the idea drew lots of support, including from first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1954, Dwight D. Eisenhower became the first president to publicly jump on board. But the idea didn’t come to fruition until the deaths of thousands of service members in Vietnam, many under 21, led to an outcry that if you could die for your country you were older enough to vote in it. One of the staunchest opponents to the 18-year-old vote from the 1940s all the way to 1970 was New York Rep. Emanuel Celler, for much of that time the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, who notoriously insisted that young people lack “the good judgment” considered essential to being good citizens.
After a 1971 attempt to amend the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did not pass Supreme Court muster, the House Judiciary Committee approved on March 2, 1971, a proposed constitutional amendment to lower the voting age to 18 for all elections. The Senate passed it, 94-0, on March 10, and the House followed, 401-19, on March 23. And by July 1, it had been ratified by the required 38 states, a record for fastest approval of a constitutional amendment. New York was No. 31.
So 1972 was the first presidential election featuring those hordes of younger voters, hence the editorial board’s warning about “the extraordinary potential for trouble.” And although some 4.5 million more Americans voted than in 1968, the board concluded that “Tuesday’s election was one of the smoothest on Long Island in recent years.”
But the board’s signoff was uncanny for its prescience and relevance to the atmosphere in which the most recent election was held.
“The two county boards of election and the thousands of workers who manned the polls deserve a vote of thanks,” the board wrote. “They did well for democracy.”