Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Mike Mansfield and the 18-year-old vote

Ian Marquand wrote a guest opinion for the Feb. 3 Billings Gazette about the role Montana Sen. Mike Mansfield played in granting voting rights to 18-year-olds.

I turned 18 in December 1968 while a senior in high school. I registered for the military draft, yet I couldn't drink legally and couldn't vote.

That began to change 40 years ago in March when Sen. Mansfield made an historic speech on the Senate floor:

“I happen to think that Congress believes that those between 18 and 21 are excluded unreasonably from the ballot box,” Mansfield said. “I happen to think that the record of such discrimination is clear beyond doubt.”

Mansfield also argued that the 14th Amendment provided Congress with the power to change the voting age on its own, a position supported by legal scholars. His fellow senators agreed and tacked on the voting age provision as a “rider” to the Voting Rights Act. It cleared both the House and Senate and received Pres. Nixon’s signature.

Soon after, the states of Oregon and Texas challenged the voting age provision in federal court. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the law would apply only to federal elections.

On March 10, 1971, almost a year to the day after Mansfield’s floor speech, the Senate approved a constitutional amendment making 18 the legal voting age nationwide. The House soon followed suit and within four months, 41 states ratified the 26th Amendment. Americans between the ages of 18 and 21 finally could vote, anywhere, anytime.

Mansfield’s quickness in recognizing an opportunity and then seizing the initiative drew praise from his fellow senators. Michigan Democrat Philip Hart called the Montanan’s action “boldness and creative politics at its finest,” while Maryland Democrat Joseph Tydings declared, “This was Senator Mansfield at his best.”

I didn't get to vote until 1972, when I was 21 and living in Boston. A Democrat from Montana's (and Wyoming's) neighbor, South Dakota, took an historic drubbing in that election. I'm still glad that I cast my first presidential vote for another courageous senator, George McGovern.

I haven't missed a presidential election yet. And I'm proud to say that my son Kevin voted in the 2004 elections as a 19-year-old. I was working at the precinct when he came in to cast his vote. A proud day for Pops.

Thanks, Sen. Mansfield. Those young voters helped turn the tide in 2008. My hope is that they stay involved. There will be many disappointments along the way. Hell, I lived through Nixon, Reagan and Dubya. I suffered many disappointments at the hands of my own party. We saw good times in '08, and now we're seeing some of the bad. Hang in there!

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