The 26th Amendment was ratified on July 1, 1971, lowering the voting age to 18 and stating that the “right of citizens … to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.” Because of this specific language, similar to that of the 15th Amendment, the 26th Amendment prohibits any discrimination against a voter based on their age. In the 50 years since its passage, the 26th Amendment has often been used in litigation to protect the rights of voters of all ages, especially when challenging Republicans’ attempts to silence young voters who are more likely to vote Democratic.
One recent case, League of Women Voters of Florida v. Lee, highlights a failed attempt by Republican legislators and officials to limit the voices of young voters.
How did we get here?
After Florida voters faced unreasonably long lines during the 2012 general election, the state Legislature expanded the availability of early voting in 2013. In particular, the state passed an Early Vote Statute that gave local election supervisors discretion to increase the number of eligible early voting facilities. However, soon after the passage of the Early Vote Statute, the then-secretary of state issued a directive stating that any “college-or university-related facilities” did not qualify as early voting sites, therefore prohibiting early voting on Florida’s college campuses. The directive effectively targeted 83,000 individuals who lived or worked on or near a college campus in Florida at the time.
In 2018, six university students in Florida and two organizations, the League of Women Voters of Florida and the Andrew Goodman Foundation, sued the Florida secretary of state, alleging that the interpretation of the Early Vote Statute “directly infringes upon and burdens [the plaintiffs’] right to participate in elections in Florida.” The plaintiffs argued that this interpretation targeted young voters by eliminating convenient and easily-accessible early voting sites, denying them an equal opportunity to vote early.
The district court agreed with the plaintiffs’ reasoning that the secretary of state’s interpretation of the Early Vote Statute violated the 26th Amendment along with the First and 14th Amendments. The court ruled that the directive was “facially discriminatory on account of age” and “has the effect of creating a secondary class of voters who [the secretary of state] prohibits from even seeking early voting sites in dense, centralized locations where they work, study, and, in many cases, live.” The district court issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting the secretary of state from enforcing the directive’s interpretation of the Early Vote Statute for future elections. As a direct result of this ruling, during the 2018 midterms “nearly 60,000 ballots were cast at … eleven early voting sites that otherwise would have never been opened” on college campuses. Florida’s 2018 midterms had a record number of early votes cast, highlighting the importance of accessible and widespread early voting sites across the state.
Despite the clear directions from the court, the secretary of state continued to waver regarding early voting on college campuses, issuing ambiguous directives that did not explicitly state that college campuses could have early voting sites under the Early Vote Statute. Furthermore, in 2019 the Florida Legislature slipped in an amendment to the Early Vote Statute in an attempt to circumvent the court’s order. This Permitted Parking Prohibition required that early voting sites provide “sufficient nonpermitted parking” for early voting locations, aiming to eliminate sites in densely populated commercial or urban areas where the population relies heavily on public transit or walking to reach voting locations — college campuses being a main target. The plaintiffs filed a supplemental complaint in August of 2019 to address these developments, arguing that both actions continued to target young voters in violation of the 26th Amendment among other violations.
The case was settled in 2020 after the secretary of state rescinded the 2014 opinion and issued a new directive allowing early voting sites on college campuses and clarifying that such sites do not need to have a certain number of parking spaces. This case set an important precedent in protecting young people’s right to vote by showing that a citizen’s right to vote cannot be abridged or denied simply because of their age.
What’s at stake?
College-aged voters rely heavily on early voting for many reasons — nearly half of Florida’s college students voted early in 2016. Early voting sites on college and university campuses provide students — many of whom do not have access to reliable transportation and are constrained by strict school and work schedules — a convenient and accessible way to vote. Additionally, younger voters and first-time voters in particular are less likely to know where and how to vote and are more likely to have their provisional or mail-in ballots rejected. Early voting provides flexibility for individuals who are unfamiliar with the process and allows students to avoid crowded Election Day polling sites. Early voting sites on college campuses also provide staff and those who live near colleges and universities an equal opportunity to vote early, a right that should not be abridged simply because one happens to reside close to a higher education institution.
The 26th Amendment prohibits age discrimination in voting laws, yet young voters continue to face challenges in trying to cast their ballots. In Montana, a law that bans voter registration and education activities on public college campuses — a clear attempt to target young voters — is currently being challenged in court. In New Hampshire, litigation is ongoing over a 2017 law that requires voters to submit extensive and burdensome documentation proving that they currently live or intend to live in New Hampshire on Election Day, imposing criminal penalties if you register within 30 days of the election and do not provide such documentation. College students, who may have recently moved to attend school and need to update their voter registration, are less likely to have qualified residency documentation and will be disproportionately burdened by this law.
60% of voters ages 18-29 voted for President Joe Biden in the 2020 election, with young people of color overwhelmingly supporting the Democratic nominee. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Republican legislators want to suppress the youth and minority vote as a way to hold onto power as their base weakens and diminishes in size.
As the district court wrote in its order granting a preliminary injunction, “Throwing up roadblocks in front of younger voters does not remotely serve the public interest. Abridging voting rights never does.” We will continue to closely watch states’ attempts to limit any eligible voter’s ability to vote.