Oregon v. Mitchell 1970

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Oregon v. Mitchell 1970

Plaintiff: State of Oregon

Defendant: John N. Mitchell, U.S. Attorney General

Plaintiff's Claim: That certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1970 were unconstitutional because the U.S. Constitution reserves the right to regulate elections to the states.

Chief Lawyer for Plaintiff: Lee Johnson

Chief Lawyer for the Defense: Erwin N. Griswold

Justices for the Court: Hugo L. Black, Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, William O. Douglas, John Marshall Harlan II, Thurgood Marshall, Potter Stewart, Byron R. White

Justices Dissenting:

Date of Decision: December 21, 1970

Decision: Ruled largely in favor of the United States by finding that the eighteen-year-old minimum age requirement is valid for national elections but not for state and local elections. The act's ban on literacy tests and state residency requirements for voting in national elections was also upheld.

Significance: The decision allowed young adults eighteen years of age to vote in presidential and congressional elections, but left it to states to lower the age in their state and local elections. This split in authority created considerable confusion in state election systems.

Speaking to a U.S. Senate committee hearing in 1970, then Attorney General Ramsey Clark urged Congress to grant eighteen to twenty year old citizens the right vote. Forcefully, Clark noted,

Young people are skeptical . . . about our [government] institutions. But youth cares. Care as it may, it seems powerless . . . What can the 18-year-old do about war which seems unbearably cruel, starvation . . . racial discrimination . . . threats to the environment . . . Youth is excluded from the initial step in the decision process devised by our system of government — the vote . . . We must start our young people voting during their last year of high school . . . involve them in our system . . . in meaningful participation . . . If we do, the system will work . . . The 18-year-old vote is an essential element . . . of American democracy.

(Quoted from The Right to Vote. (1972) by Bill Severn, pg. 1)

Young adults, eighteen to twenty years of age, would be the last block of American to receive the right to vote in all elections, federal, state, and local with the ratification of the Twenty-sixth Amendment in July of 1971.

The People's Struggle

At the birth of the United States, only white males with property or wealth could vote. The Founding Fathers who wrote the U.S. Constitution in the 1780s left it to the states to decide who could vote. Consequently, gaining the right to vote for most Americans, such as black Americans and women, became a step by step battle spanning almost two hundred years. Young adults would also struggle for decades to gain the right to vote.

Twenty-one Equals Adulthood Equals Right to Vote

The concept that twenty-one was the age at which a boy became a man was long rooted in English common law. In the eleventh century a young man was not considered strong enough to bear the weight of armor and, therefore, unable to take on adult responsibilities until twenty-one. English settlers brought to America the idea that twenty-one was the accepted age of adulthood and applied it to the age at which a young person could first vote. The Constitution did not set a voting age. The states, free to set their own voting qualifications including age limits, consistently adopted twenty-one as the standard age to first vote.

Arguments to lower the voting age were often heard during times of war and hardship. The American Civil War (1861–1865), World War I (1914–1918), the Great Depression (1929–1940), and World War II (1939–1945) all forced many young people to take on adult responsibilities and brought the cry for change in voting age.

"Fight at 18, Vote at 18"—Georgia's Slogan

Georgia became the first state to grant all those eighteen years of age the right to vote in 1943. By the mid-1950s opinion polls repeatedly showed a majority of Americans favored giving young men who had to fight the vote. Yet, it would be twelve years before the next state, Kentucky, joined Georgia in lowering the voting age to eighteen.

Beginning with President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953–1961) in 1954, American presidents through the 1960s continuously called for a national constitutional amendment to lower the voting age for all young Americans, eighteen and older. Young people of the 1960s, faced with the Vietnam War (1964–1975), pushed hard for an amendment. Yet, all attempts to move a constitutional amendment through Congress failed.

Voting Rights Act of 1970

To avoid the slow and difficult process of a constitutional amendment, Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Senator Mike Mansfield of Montana amazingly managed to add the eighteen-year-old vote onto the Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1970. The act extended the expiring Voting Rights Act of 1965, put a nationwide ban on literacy tests (ability to read and write), established uniform thirty-day state residency requirements for voting in a presidential election, and reduced the voting age to eighteen in all federal state and local elections after January 1, 1971. Congress based its action in reducing the voting age on the guarantees found in the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The Due Process Clause assures no rights may be taken away without fair legal hearings and equal protection guarantees persons in similar situations must be treated equally under the laws. Congress found that requiring a citizen to be twenty-one as a condition for voting "denies . . . the . . . constitutional rights of citizens eighteen years of age but not yet twenty-one years of age . . . [and] has the effect of denying . . . the due process and equal protection of the laws . . . "

Then Speaker of the House John McCormick called the day of the act's passage the "happiest day" in his long congressional career. He feared without the act eighteen-year-olds might be kept from voting for years. President Richard M. Nixon (1969–1974), although strongly favoring the eighteen-year-old vote, felt Congress had no constitutional power to enact it. He believed the decision should remain with each state until a constitutional amendment was passed. Nevertheless, Nixon signed the act and instructed U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell to force states to comply. A U.S. Supreme Court test followed within months in Oregon v. Mitchell.

A Flurry of Lawsuits

Oregon and Texas each sued Mitchell in an effort to prevent him from enforcing the act in their states. At the same time the U.S. government sued Arizona and Idaho on grounds that those two states refused to comply with the act. All four cases were combined in the Supreme Court opinion in Oregon v. Mitchell.

A Door Opened Part-Way

The states challenged three provisions (parts) of the 1970 amendments to the Voting Rights Act. The challenged provisions were the extension of voting rights to those eighteen years of age, the ban on state literacy tests, and the ban on state residence requirements for voting in presidential elections.

The states argued before the Court the provisions unlawfully took away constitutional power reserved for the states to set their own voting requirements.

On December 21, 1970, the Supreme Court issued its decision opening the door part way to voting by eighteen year olds. Four justices considered the voting age provision entirely constitutional for both federal and state and local elections. Four other justices believed it was entirely unconstitutional in any elections. Justice Hugo L. Black, writing for the Court, sided partly with one group and partly with the other. First, Black concluded,

Congress has the authority to permit 18 year old citizens to vote in national elections, under Article I, section 4, Article II, section 1 . . . of the Constitution since those provisions fully empower Congress to make or alter [change] regulations in national elections, to supervise such elections, and to set the qualifications for voters therein.

But, Black further concluded, "under Article I, section 2, the States have the power to set qualifications to vote in state and local elections, and the whole Constitution reserves that power to the States" except where specific constitutional amendments have taken away the state's power. He found that the due process and the equal protection clauses in the Fourteenth Amendment on which Congress had relied in passing the act applied only to racial issues, not age issues.

Thus, Black's opinion resulted in a majority of five agreeing those young adults eighteen years of age could vote in federal elections and a majority of a different five agreeing those eighteen could not vote in state or local elections unless the states so decided. The justices, in agreement, upheld the provisions banning literacy testing nationwide and residency requirements in federal elections.

An Administrative Nightmare

The Court decision that those eighteen could vote in national elections but not state or local elections threw state election systems into confusion. All the states who had not allowed young citizens to vote would now have to establish two separate systems of registration and voting, one for national elections and another for state and local elections. Hundreds of additional state and municipal employees would have to be hired and millions of dollars spent on voting machines or separate paper ballots to carry out the dual system. Completing the task by 1972 elections seemed impossible. In addition, many people believed it was obviously unfair to say a young person was old enough to vote for those who run the nation but too young to know about issues closest to home. Pressure quickly mounted from the public for a constitutional amendment to set a uniform voting age of eighteen in all states for all elections.


R atification in 1971 of the Twenty-sixth Amendment, lowering the voting age to eighteen, opened the door to approximately eleven million new voters. Many political observers at the time predicted high numbers of young voters would have a profound effect on U.S. politics. However, those eighteen to twenty years of age have participated in elections at a significantly lower rate than the general population.

Youth voter turn-out in the 1998 elections was the lowest ever. According to exit polls, only 12.2 percent of those eighteen to twenty-four years of age voted in mid-term elections compared to 19 percent in 1994. While voter turnout had hit an all-time low, youth were volunteering in record numbers. The University of California at Los Angeles 1997 annual survey of college freshman found 73 percent had volunteered in 1996. Youth were making a difference in their communities where they could see immediate results from their efforts.

Compared to volunteering, studies indicate youth do not get the same empowering feeling when they go into a voting booth. The two-party system appears old and outdated. A majority of youth who register to vote, register as independent and of the most politically active groups up to 80 percent decline to name a party affiliation.

Suggestions to close the gap between the number of youth voting and volunteering include: (1) expanding the two-party system and (2) allowing registration on the same as elections.

The Twenty-sixth Amendment was proposed in Congress on March 23, 1971. The Senate and House overwhelmingly approved the amendment. By July 1, 1971 the amendment had been ratified by three-fourths of the states. The ratification period of 107 days was the shortest in American history.

Suggestions for further reading

Arrington, Karen McGill, and William L. Taylor, editors. Voting Rights in America: Continuing the Quest for Full Protection. Washington, DC: Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Inc., 1992.

Cultice, Wendell W. Youth's Battle for the Ballot. New York: Greenwood Press, 1992.

Kids Voting, USA. [Online] http://www.kidsvotingusa.org (Accessed August 18, 2000).

Severn, Bill. The Right to Vote. New York: Ives Washburn, Inc., 1972.

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