Jerry Kopel


State standards for legislators a patchwork

How old should you be to serve in the Colorado Legislature? The voters will decide in November.

Referendum L on the November ballot would drop the age qualification for members of Colorado’s House and Senate from 25 to 21.

House Concurrent Resolution 1002 by Rep. Michael Garcia, D-Denver, and Sen. Steve Johnson, R-Fort Collins, to amend the Constitution on this issue won sufficient votes in the 2007 Legislature to become Referendum L.

Those who favor the measure argue that Colorado is one of only three states out of 50 that requires both state representatives and state senators to be 25. The other two are Arizona and Utah.

Colorado set 25 as the qualifying age when its Constitution was enacted in July 1876. At that time, the ability to cast a vote in the United States was limited to citizens 21 and older. That meant a four-year difference between voting and serving.

The national voting age was dropped from 21 to 18 in 1971 under Article 26 of the U.S. Constitution. It was ratified by 38 states as of June 30, 1971, with the wording, “The right of citizens of the United States who are eighteen years of age or older to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.”

If Colorado voters pass Referendum L, Colorado will join nine other states that require both House and Senate members to be at least 21: Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska (which has only one legislative chamber), Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota and Virginia.

Including Nebraska, 27 states require the members of their lower chamber to be at least 21. Another 17 states require members of the House to be at least 18. Of the remaining six states, we have the previously mentioned three (including Colorado) with an age minimum of 25, and three states that require members of the House to be at least 24: Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri.

Kentucky and Missouri are weird. In addition to requiring House members to be at least 24, state senators must be at least 30. Other states with a minimum Senate floor age of 30 are New Hampshire, New Jersey and Tennessee. Delaware’s state senators must be at least 27.

Nineteen states have a minimum Senate age of 25. Another 14 draw the line at 18.

There is no logic to this lack of uniformity. Why should a brilliant young person old enough to vote at age 18 be required to wait seven years to gain a seat in the Colorado House, while his twin sister could already have been sworn in to the lower house of the Kansas Legislature?

The age minimum for Congress is 25, and for the U.S. Senate it is 30. Those limits might postpone the involvement of good candidates, but at least they’re the same in Texas and Connecticut.

Will Colorado eventually end up with 18 as the qualifying age for the House and 21 for the Senate? Minnesota is presently the only state with those limits. Fifteen states require House members to be at least 21 and senators to be at least 25; that’s the largest number of states with common age limits for the two chambers. Twelve states require a minimum age of 18 for both the House and the Senate.

Of course, any future changes as to age qualification for Colorado legislators would have to come through a vote of the citizens to amend the state Constitution.

Most opposition to a younger age for service revolves around “the lack of experience in the REAL world.” That won’t be resolved until someone does a study of how 18- and 21-year-old legislators have performed.

My thanks to Peggy Kerns of the National Conference of States Legislators and Deb Godshall of the Legislative Council for their assistance in providing pertinent information.

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In total, four referendums from the Legislature dealing with constitutional amendments will be on the November 2008 ballot. In addition to Referendum L, they are Referendum N (HCR 1008) repealing language relating to intoxicating substances; Referendum M (HCR 1009) repealing a tax exemption following arboreal planting; and Referendum O (SCR 003) revising the process for initiatives on changing the Constitution and state statutes. Next week: Referendum O.

Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House.