PBS: By the People, Election 2004
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Voting Rights

In this activity, students will write letters to their state and/or national leaders either in support or against a fictitious proposed constitutional amendment to lower the voting age from 18 to 16. While there is no current proposed amendment (at least none on the federal level), this is an opportunity for students to become involved in participatory democratic politics.

I. Objectives
II. Necessary Materials
III. Background
IV. Teaching Procedure
V. Assessment Recommendations
VI. Extension/Adaptation Ideas
VII. Online Resources
VIII. Relevant National Standards

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I. Objectives

  • Students will gain an appreciation for citizen participation in government and politics.
  • Students will learn how to write an effective letter to a state or national legislator.
  • Students will develop effective argumentation and persuasion strategies.

II. Necessary Materials

  • Computer
  • Internet access
  • Chalkboard, white board, newsprint, butcher paper or art paper
  • Notebook paper for notes
  • Pen or pencil
  • Worksheets 1 and 2
  • Computer with Internet access for web research
  • Paper
  • Pen or word processor
  • Envelopes and postage stamps

III. Background
In the late 1960s, the government came under intense pressure from anti-Vietnam War activists, which led Congress to pass legislation that became the 26th Amendment. This amendment, ratified by state legislatures in 1971, lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 in all federal, state and local elections. Passage of the 26th Amendment also lowered the "age of majority" (the age where persons are considered legal adults) in all states.

The logic for passage of this amendment was that if 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds were old enough to be drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam, they were old enough to vote for the leaders who made policy and military decisions.

In the years since the amendment's passage, there have been movements to further lower the voting age. Many of these "grassroots" movements have sprung up on both the and the state level.

IV. Teaching Procedure
Part 1: Timeline

1. The teacher may begin the lesson by discussing past movements to extend the right of suffrage to other groups, including black males (15th Amendment), women (19th Amendment), and 18-20 year-olds (26th Amendment). The teacher might also discuss the 1960's Freedom Summer movement and the Voting Rights movement to register southern blacks. The teacher might also note that in each instance, groups that felt they were denied the right to vote actively demonstrated and worked toward voting rights, and those groups still consistently exercise the right to vote today.

2. Using the Online Resources listed below, the teacher should assign the class to determine how recently these groups have achieved the right to vote by developing a timeline physically demonstrating the struggle of these groups to gain equal rights. The teacher may wish to divide the class into three separate teams one to research African-American suffrage, another to research the women's suffrage movement and a third to research the right of 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds to vote.

The teacher may also instruct the students to look not only for the dates when the 15th, 19th, and 26th Amendments were ratified, but also for related events that will heighten student awareness of the struggle of these groups to gain the right to vote. For example, students might want to look for information regarding the Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation and Reconstruction for the 15th Amendment. Other areas they should examine are the women's rights movement for the 19th Amendment, and the Vietnam War era and decade of the 1960s for the 26th Amendment.

3. The teacher may opt to have students simply draw a timeline on the classroom chalkboard or whiteboard or may wish to have students do so in a more visible manner by acquiring butcher paper or newsprint and having students draw a timeline on that. Art paper that has been taped or glued would work well.

Part 2: Writing letters

4. Through use of a physical timeline, students can gain greater insight into the events and reasons for granting the right to vote to these three different groups. Once the discussion on past voting rights and the related activity is concluded, the teacher might discuss how citizens in a representative democracy make their wishes known: primarily by writing letters to their representatives. The teacher might also note that the availability of e-mail has further enhanced participatory democracy by allowing citizens to contact their legislators, as well as the White House at any time and in an immediate fashion.

5. The teacher describes the letter writing activity by having students imagine that a constitutional amendment has been proposed (or is being considered for proposal) which would lower the voting age in federal, state and local elections from 18 to 16. The teacher should also tell the students that the imaginary amendment is being considered, but that elected officials are waiting to make a decision on whether to proceed with the amendment until they have had adequate time to learn constituencies' views.

As part of this simulation, the teacher may want to announce to students that several groups are currently opposed to extending the right to vote to 16-year-olds. The groups' reasons include the 16-year-olds' lack of knowledge about the political system, as well as some concerns that granting 16 year olds the right to vote would also give them rights that they may not be mature enough to handle. For example, 16-year-olds would then have the right to marry without parental consent and the right to enter into legally binding contracts. In addition, there is a possibility that they would no longer be able to enjoy juvenile rights in the criminal justice system.

6. The teacher describes the actual activity: students are to write letters to a state or federal official either in favor of or opposed to the amendment. In order to assist students in developing ideas and a proper format, the teacher may want to duplicate and distribute the two handouts. Worksheet 1 explains the right way to address various government officials. Worksheet 2 is a sample letter to the president.

7. The teacher may also wish to discuss some criteria for effective letter writing to government officials. These might include:

  • The letter must be free of spelling errors
  • It should be typed or legibly handwritten on good paper
  • It must make a point. (Remember that you want your reader to believe that you are an educated, mature person.)
  • Letters should be of reasonable length. (You have to be able to tell your reader what you want them to know, but you don't want to write so much that they don't read the letter.)

Addresses for various elected officials can be found on government Web sites:
White House

US Senate

US House of Representatives

Research Unlimited at State Government Sites

V. Extension/Adaptation Ideas
Divide the class into two groups and have one group write letters in favor of the amendment, while the other group writes letters in opposition, regardless of their actual opinion on the issue.

VI. Assessment Recommendations
Once the letters are written, the teacher should evaluate them based on what criteria they have established. While this might be best left to the individual teacher, a rubric is provided so that sample guidelines are suggested.

Evaluation Rubric

1.Letter formatting (how does the student follow instructions about addressing the letter to a particular government official; do they use the correct form address, etc.) (20 points)

2. Grammar, punctuation, spelling (does the student use correct grammar throughout the letter? Is the spelling correct? Is the punctuation correct?) (20 points)

3. Theme and form of the letter (does the student follow the suggestions in the lesson as to how to correctly frame the letter? For example, does he/she mention the reason they are writing in the first paragraph of the letter? Is it concise?) (20 points)

4. Persuasiveness (does the student make a believable, persuasive argument that might actually convince the recipient to follow the student's belief/viewpoint) (20 points)

5. Research skills (does the student use acceptable statistics and research in the letter to develop the argument and attempt to sway the government official?)

VIII. Online Resources

Voting Age

American Bar Association's Division for Public Education

University of California (Los Angeles)

US Department of Justice: Federal Voting Rights Laws

National Archives and Records Administration

IX. Relevant National Standards
These are established by McREL at

Social Studies

  • Understands how participation in civic and political life can help citizens attain individual and public goals
  • Understands how the United States Constitution grants and distributes power and responsibilities to national and state government
  • Understands the meaning of citizenship in the United States
  • Understands the importance of Americans sharing and supporting certain values, beliefs, and principles of American constitutional democracy
  • Understands ideas about civic life, politics, and government
  • Understands issues concerning the relationship between state and local governments and the national government and issues pertaining to representation at all three levels of government
  • Understands how certain character traits enhance citizens' ability to fulfill personal and civic responsibilities
  • Understands the extent to which social and political issues were influenced by the Civil War and Reconstruction (e.g., why women's rights leaders felt betrayed by Reconstruction, the extent to which crooked business deals encouraged corruption in the government)
  • Understands factors that inhibited and fostered African American attempts to improve their lives during Reconstruction
  • Understands the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution (e.g., how citizenship was included, why the clauses of "equal protection of the laws" and "due process" were included, why women were excluded in the 15th amendment)

Language Arts

  • Uses grammatical and mechanical conventions in written compositions
  • Demonstrates competence in the general skills and strategies of the writing process
  • Demonstrates competence in the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing
  • Presents information, concepts, and ideas to an audience of listeners or readers on a variety of topics

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