Oregon v. Mitchell: Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact

Does Congress have the power to set a minimum voting age?

Voters at a polling station

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Oregon v. Mitchell (1970) asked the Supreme Court to determine whether three amendments to the Voting Rights Act of 1970 were constitutional. In a 5-4 decision with multiple opinions, justices found that the federal government could set a voting age for federal elections, ban literacy tests, and allow non-state residents to vote in federal elections.

Fast Facts: Oregon v. Mitchell

  • Case Argued: October 19, 1970
  • Decision Issued: December 21, 1970
  • Petitioner: Oregon, Texas, and Idaho
  • Respondent: John Mitchell, Attorney General of the United States
  • Key Questions: Can Congress set a minimum voting age for state and federal elections, ban literacy tests, and allow absentee voting?
  • Majority: Justices Black, Douglas, Brennan, White, Marshall
  • Dissenting: Justices Burger, Harland, Stewart, Blackmun
  • Ruling: Congress can set a minimum voting age for federal elections, but cannot alter age requirements for state elections. Congress may also ban literacy tests under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

Facts of the Case

Oregon v. Mitchell raised complex questions about the division of power between the states and the federal government. More than a century after the ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, discriminatory practices still actively prevented people from voting. Many states required literacy tests in order to vote, which disproportionately impacted people of color. Residency requirements barred many citizens from voting in presidential elections. The federal voting age was 21, but 18-year-olds were being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War.

Congress took action in 1965, passing the first Voting Rights Act which was designed to increase voter enfranchisement. The original act lasted five years and in 1970, Congress extended it while adding new amendments.

The 1970 amendments to the Voting Rights Act did three things:

  1. Lowered the minimum age of voters in state and federal elections from 21 to 18.
  2. Enforced the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments by preventing states from using literacy tests. Evidence showed that these tests disproportionately impacted people of color.
  3. Allowed people who could not prove state residency to vote for presidential and vice-presidential candidates.

Outraged over by what they viewed as an overreach by Congress, Oregon, Texas, and Idaho sued the United States and Attorney General John Mitchell. In a reverse suit, the U.S. government took legal action against Alabama and Idaho for refusing to comply with the amendments. The Supreme Court addressed the cases collectively in their Oregon v. Mitchell opinion.

Constitutional Questions

Article 1 section 4 of the U.S. Constitution empowers states to make laws regulating national elections. However, that same article allows Congress to alter these regulations if needed. Does Congress have the power to use the Voting Rights Act of 1970 to place federal restrictions on elections? Does this violate the Constitution? Can Congress place restrictions if they are intended to increase voter enfranchisement?

Arguments

The government argued that Congress could constitutionally alter voting requirements, as Congress is tasked with enforcing the Fifteenth amendment through "appropriate legislation." The Fifteenth Amendment reads, "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." Literacy tests discriminated against people of color and voting requirements prevented 18-year-olds from having a say in the government they represented while serving in the army. Congress was within its powers and duties by enacting legislation to remedy these issues with voter eligibility, the attorneys argued.

Attorneys on behalf of the states argued that Congress had overstepped its powers when it passed the 1970 amendments to the Voting Rights Act. Voting requirements had traditionally been left to the states. Literacy tests and age requirements were not qualifications based on race or class. They simply allowed the state to place broad limits on who could and could not vote, which was well within the power given to states by Article I of the U.S. Constitution.

Majority Opinion

Justice Black delivered the 5-4 decision. The Court upheld certain provisions while declaring the unconstitutionality of others. Based on the Court’s reading of Article 1 section 4 of the Constitution, a majority of justices agreed that it was within Congress’ power to set a minimum voting age for federal elections. As a result, Congress could lower the voting age to 18 for presidential, vice presidential, senate, and congressional elections. Justice Black pointed to the drawing of congressional districts as an example of how the Framers of the Constitution intended to give Congress vast powers over voter qualifications. “Surely no voter qualification was more important to the framers than the geographic qualification embodied in the concept of congressional districts,” Justice Black wrote. 

Congress could not, however, alter the voting age for state and local elections. The Constitution does give states the power to run their governments independently, with little intrusion from the federal government. Even if Congress could lower the federal voting age, it could not alter the voting age for local and state elections. Leaving the voting age at 21 in state and local elections was not a violation of the Fourteenth or Fifteenth Amendments because the regulation did not classify people based on race, Justice Black wrote. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were designed to remove voting barriers based on race, not age, Justice Black pointed out.

This meant, however, that the Court upheld provisions of the 1970 Voting Rights Act that banned literacy tests. Literacy tests had been shown to discriminate against people of color. They were a clear violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, the Court found. 

Similar to the age requirements, the Court found no issue with Congress altering residency requirements and creating absentee voting for federal elections. These fell within Congress’ powers to maintain a functioning government, Justice Black wrote. 

Dissenting Opinions

Oregon v. Mitchell divided the Court, spurring multiple decisions concurring in part and dissenting in part. Justice Douglas argued that the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause allows Congress to set a minimum voting age for state elections. The right to vote is fundamental and essential to a functioning democracy, Justice Douglas wrote. The Fourteenth Amendment was designed to prevent racial discrimination but had already been applied in cases that did not solely answer questions related to race. The Supreme Court had already used the amendment to strike down prior voting restrictions such as owning property, marital status, and occupation. Justice White and Marshall agreed with Douglas, but Justice White also argued that denying citizens between the age of 18 and 21 the right to vote violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Justice Harlan authored a separate opinion in which he laid out the history behind the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. He agreed with the majority that the federal government could set a voting age for federal elections, but added that it could not interfere with voting age in state elections or state residency requirements. The idea that people between the age of 18 and 21 are discriminated against if they cannot vote was "fanciful." Justice Stewart authored the final opinion, joined by Justice Burger and Blackmun. According to Justice Stewart, the Constitution did not give Congress the power to alter age requirements for any election, federal or state. The majority had given its opinion on whether 18-year-olds could vote, rather than offering its input on whether Congress could constitutionally set a voting age, Justice Stewart wrote.

Impact

Congress lowered the federal voting age through the 1970 Voting Rights Act. However, it wasn't until the ratification of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment in 1971 that the voting age throughout the U.S. was officially reduced to 18 from 21. Between the Supreme Court's ruling in Oregon v. Mitchell and the ratification of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, there was a large amount of confusion as to what age was the minimum requirement for voting. In just four months, ratification of the 26th amendment made Oregon v. Mitchell moot. The legacy of the case remains a balance between the powers of the state and the federal government.

Sources

  • Oregon v. Mitchell, 400 U.S. 112 (1970).
  • “The 26th Amendment.” US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives, history.house.gov/Historical-Highlights/1951-2000/The-26th-Amendment/.
  • Benson, Jocelyn, and Michael T Morely. “The Twenty-Sixth Amendment.” 26th Amendment | The National Constitution Center, constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/interpretation/amendment-xxvi/interps/161.