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We the People: 50 years ago, Congress backed voting for 18-year-olds. Here’s how some of the first teens to vote feel now

March 21, 2021 Updated Fri., July 22, 2022 at 12:36 p.m.

Kerry Lynch, who has been involved with political campaigns and the public relations business, sits Friday in Riverfront Park in downtown Spokane. Lynch remembers well when the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Kerry Lynch, who has been involved with political campaigns and the public relations business, sits Friday in Riverfront Park in downtown Spokane. Lynch remembers well when the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971. (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Question: There are four amendments to the U.S. Constitution about who can vote, describe one of them.

The answer to this is a bit tricky, because there are actually five amendments that describe who can vote, although the 14th Amendment – which says voters must be 21 and male and was actually stating the standard practice at the time – has been changed by the other four.

The Constitution as written did not have specifications for who can vote but instead left the rules for elections to the states.

Initially, most states required a voter to be at least 21, white, male and own property. In the 1820s, states began removing the requirement to own property, but the other three conditions stuck. It took wars and organized protests to change them.

After the Civil War, Congress passed the 14th Amendment in 1866 to say all men 21 and over were citizens who had the right to vote for president, vice president and their member of Congress “except for participation in rebellion or other crime.” It was ratified two years later.

Beyond white men

To make it clear voting rights included former slaves, Congress passed the 15th Amendment in 1869 that says the right to vote can’t be denied based on “race, color or previous condition of servitude,” but the requirement that they be men at least 21 remained. It was ratified a year later, although many Southern states quickly found ways to prevent Black people from voting through poll taxes or other restrictions.

Efforts to extend the vote to women started in 1848, but women weren’t included in the 15th Amendment. Some Western territories, starting with Wyoming, had laws that allowed women to vote.

The Washington Territory twice passed laws giving women the right to vote, although both times the laws were overturned by the territorial Supreme Court. The Washington Secretary of State’s website said the main reason was because women voters were making liquor sales more difficult and the liquor lobby fought hard to remove their rights.

The state Constitution was amended in 1910 to give women the right to vote. Amendments to the U.S. Constitution to extend the vote to women nationwide were proposed in the late 1800s and early 1900s. But Congress didn’t pass the 19th Amendment until 1919; it was ratified a year later, in time for women to vote in the 1920 presidential election.

Although Black men had the right to vote in 1870, and Black women in 1920, Southern states had ways of keeping them from voting by requiring they pay poll taxes, pass “literacy” tests and own property. Many states allowed residents to be exempt from some requirements if their grandfathers had been eligible to vote, which exempted poor white residents, even if they couldn’t read, but not Black residents because their grandfathers had been enslaved.

In 1962, Congress passed the 24th Amendment, which banned the poll tax or any other tax being required to vote. After the amendment was ratified in 1964, Congress followed up with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 designed to increase the ability of Blacks to vote in the South.

A half-century ago

The most recent change to voting laws, the 26th Amendment, passed Congress 50 years ago Wednesday, which lowered the voting age to 18. It holds the record for the fastest ratification of any amendment, becoming law less than four months later.

One major argument for lowering the voting age was driven by the Vietnam War and the military draft that was providing the troops to fight it. All young men in the United States were required to register for the draft when they turned 18, as had been the case most years since World War II.

“I remember the argument: If you’re old enough to go to war you should be old enough to vote,” recalled Spokane resident Mitch Silver. “It was pretty hard to argue with.”

Silver, who was 18 at the time and opposed to the war, recalls putting a bumper sticker on his bicycle for Democrat George McGovern, who ran for president on a platform of ending the war.

Some states tried to lower the voting age for their residents, and Congress tried to drop it to 18 in 1970 when it extended the Voting Rights Act. But a divided Supreme Court ruled that needed a constitutional amendment, not a law. The new Congress moved quickly in early 1971 to do just that.

Trying, and failing, to be first

The day the amendment passed Congress, Washington was among several states vying to be the first to approve the amendment. It might have won the race if legislators weren’t so concerned about who would get credit for it.

The state Senate passed its resolution supporting the 18-year-old vote before the final vote in the U.S. House of Representatives. The state House of Representatives passed a separate resolution after the congressional vote, then adjourned.

Leaders of the two chambers then got together to work out what The Spokesman-Review’s legislative correspondent called “one of the strangest compromises ever seen in the Legislature” that allowed the sponsors of the resolution in each chamber to be listed on the resolution in the other chamber.

The support wasn’t unanimous, however, the newspaper reported. Rep. Carlton Gladder, R-Spokane, complained the haste was “an opportunity to jump at the crack of the federal whip.” Besides, Gladder noted, Washington voters had turned down a state constitutional amendment to lower their voter age to 19 the previous fall.

Several other Spokane legislators, including Sen. Sam Guess and Reps. James Kuehnle, Jerry Kopet and Margaret Hurley, joined Gladder in voting no, but eventually both resolutions passed later that day with Washington officially listed as the fifth state to ratify the amendment.

The Idaho Legislature approved the amendment a week later and on July 1, North Carolina was the 38th state to ratify the amendment. That day, the Spokane Chronicle interviewed 16 teens who would soon be eligible to vote. Not surprisingly, most thought it was a good idea.

‘We are very qualified’

“We learn about the government and the passage of laws, and about the people running for office in our high school classes, things which many adults have forgotten,” Kerry Lynch, who had worked on the unsuccessful Vote 19 campaign the previous year, told the reporters. “I feel we are very qualified to vote.”

Lynch wouldn’t turn 18 until Nov. 5, two days after that year’s general election. She recalls registering and voting the next year, in the 1972 presidential election.

“It was really a big deal to go with my mom to vote,” Lynch recalled last week. “My mother was very active politically.”

As a youngster, Lynch said, she passed out flyers saying “In your heart, you know he’s right” for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. By 1972, she was in college and voted for McGovern. She has worked on numerous campaigns in the Spokane area, for candidates and ballot issues like Spokane school levies.

Elizabeth Kopczynski, a recent Lewis and Clark graduate, told a Chronicle reporter she thought “some of the politicians would start catering to the young more.”

Some 50 years later, Elizabeth Kopczynski Moore still recalls being very excited that she would be able to vote.

“I probably went right away (to register),” she said. Kopczynski Moore would have been able to vote in 1971, when Spokane had city council elections, but she said she might not have because she was away at college. She does remember the 1972 elections, however. She was a member of The Minstrel String Guild, which performed when McGovern appeared at a rally at Gonzaga University. She voted for him in the election about two weeks later.

Kopczynski Moore said she’s continued to vote even as she moved around the country, eventually returning to Spokane with her husband. While she did enjoy going to the polls, she has become a fan of voting-by-mail, and having the time to study what’s on the ballot.

“Whether I won or not, I believe you should just get out there and vote,” she said. “Even when it doesn’t turn out my way, it’s still exciting.”

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