Old Enough to Serve
By: Jim Longworth
I never knew Richard Dobbs Spaight personally, but I bet he resented George Mason. In 1787, Spaight, a native of New Bern, was one of North Carolina’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and one of only four delegates under the age of 30 who signed off on our great document. Mason signed too, but he was also responsible for setting age limits on candidates for federal office. Mason made sure that no one under 25 could serve in the House of Representatives, and that you had to be 30 and 35 to run for Senate and President, respectively. John Seary, author of “Too Young to Run,” said Mason had a simple argument for not lowering the age a few notches. The Virginia politician said he “had been an idiot at age 21, and figured most 21-year-olds were about the same.”
Spaight was 29 in 1787 and perhaps would have made a good president, but he just wasn’t old enough to run under the new rules. He did, however, run for high office later and, in 1792, became Governor of North Carolina. Still, it must have been difficult for him to listen to a bunch of old guys in Philadelphia disrespecting young people, and dictating the age at which they could vote or hold office. Now 230 years later, another North Carolinian probably feels the same way.
Joe Schuler was told by the Guilford County Board of Elections that he was too young to run for a seat on Greensboro City Council. Schuler, a student at University of North Carolina Greensboro, is 19 years old, and the North Carolina Constitution bars anyone under 21 from holding a State office. Ever the optimist, Schuler told the Greensboro News & Record, “Hopefully, someday the laws will change.”
The laws have already changed in some states, where young people are running for and winning local races. This year, for example, Carl Nordman, 19, is running for Mayor of Adel, Iowa. He is trying to unseat 26-year incumbent Jim Peters. His campaign is not unprecedented in the Hawkeye State. In 2011, 18-year-old Jeremy Minnier was elected Mayor of Aredale, Iowa. In 2010, 19-year-old Romaine Quinn became Mayor of Rice Lake, Wisconsin. In 2008, 19-year-old John Hammond, a freshman at the University of Oklahoma, bested the incumbent Mayor of Muskogee with 70 percent of the vote. In 2006, 18-year-old Kyle Corbin was elected Mayor of Union, Oregon. One year earlier, teenagers were elected Mayor in Linesville, Pennsylvania, Roland, Iowa, and Hillsdale, Michigan.
Despite the progress being made in some localities, wholesale change isn’t coming soon enough for Seary, who writes, “In our country, 18-year-olds can buy cigarettes, donate organs, drive cars, fly airplanes, shoot guns, sign contracts, have consensual sex, get married, get divorced, have children, join the military, serve as jurors and be tried in court as an adult. But for some reason, they are branded too immature and too inexperienced to run for office.” Seary was referring mainly to federal office, but his argument also rings true for young people who want to run for state and local offices.
A particular sticking point among older teens is that if they can be sent overseas to fight for our country at age 18, they should be able to hold any elected office at age 18. It’s a familiar argument, which arose over voting rights five decades ago. In 1971, following a growing protest against the Vietnam War and our mandatory military draft, Congress amended the 26th Amendment to allow 18-year-olds to vote. Today there is a similar move afoot to lower the age for young people who want to hold a local, state, or federal office.
Like Mason, I also believe that a lot of young people are too immature and too inexperienced to represent themselves, much less thousands of their neighbors. But I also recognize that there are a growing number of exceptional men and women under the age of 21 who are wise beyond their years, and who have innovative ideas for how we should be governed. The problem is, even exceptional young leaders haven’t had enough life experience, or adult responsibilities, to give them a rounded perspective on how to go about serving and regulating others. I also agree that anyone who is old enough to join the military is old enough to hold office. That’s why I propose that we raise the minimum age for military service to 21, and leave the North Carolina law as is. My proposal won’t help Schuler get elected anytime soon, but it could save the lives of a lot of other Schulers who might be allowed to grow up a little more before heading off to war, or to the Mayor’s office.
Jim Longworth is host of Triad Today which airs Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on abc45 and Sundays at 11 a.m. on MY48