Age Requirement for Holding Office
The Framers of the CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES as well as the drafters of constitutions for most of the individual states set a minimum age for a person to be eligible for elective office. As a result, voters may not always be able to evaluate and elect candidates for public office on whatever criteria they choose, or on no criteria at all.
With respect to the states, the minimum age required to serve as a house representative ranges from 18 to 25, with about half the states requiring a minimum age of 21. Only about a third of the states allow 18-year-olds to serve in the state senate, and 20 have set a minimum age of 25. In five states, the minimum age required to serve as a state senator is 30.
For governor, most states require a minimum age of 30. Oklahoma has a minimum age of 31, six states have no age qualification, three allow a minimum age of 18, and six specify a minimum age of 25.
Although many states, over the years, have voluntarily changed their age qualification laws to allow more people to run for elective office, court challenges to these statutes have largely failed. In 1971, the SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES held that the TWENTY-SIXTH AMENDMENT to the U.S. Constitution, which forbids the states to deny the vote to anyone 18 years or older, had no effect on the constitutionality of age requirements for holding office. Those challenging age restrictions have argued that such laws deny people under the required age EQUAL PROTECTION of the law. These challenges have not been successful. Courts have found that holding office is not a fundamental right that states may not restrict. They have determined that age is a reasonable basis of discrimination to ensure that those serving in government possess the necessary maturity, experience, and competence to perform as effective representatives.
The Framers of the U.S. Constitution set forth a number of reasons for requiring a minimum age for election to office, beliefs that are still held today. JAMES MADISON successfully argued that a minimum age of 30 should be required to serve in the U.S. Senate. He cited as his reason "the Senatorial trust," requiring a "stability of character" that could only be realized with age (Federalist No. 62). GEORGE MASON, of Virginia, suggested that 25 be set as the minimum age for the House of Representatives, a proposal that was adopted. He maintained that 21-year-olds did not possess sufficient maturity to serve in the House, as their political beliefs were "too crude and erroneous to merit an influence on public opinions" (1 Records of the Federal Convention of 1787). JAMES WILSON, a drafter from Pennsylvania, countered, unsuccessfully, that age requirements would "damp the effects of genius and of laudable ambition" and added that there was "no more reason for incapacitating youth than age" (1 Records of the Federal Convention of 1787). In the mid-1990s, the average member of Congress was in her or his mid-fifties, but the number of younger members elected to serve was on the increase.
The Framers also considered the minimum age that should be required for individuals seeking the presidency of the United States, and settled on 35—the highest age qualification for any office in the United States. JOHN F. KENNEDY, who became president at the age of 43, was the youngest person to be elected to that office.
Although the Framers of the U.S. Constitution and the individual states were careful to set minimum age requirements for office, upper age limits have not been established. President RONALD REAGAN was the oldest individual to assume the office of president; he was almost 70 when he was sworn in, and served two terms before leaving office at nearly 78.
Council of State Governments. 2003. The Book of the States. Lexington, Ky.: Council of State Governments.
Farrand, Max, ed. 1966. Records of the Federal Convention of 1787. Rev. ed. Vol. 1. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press.
Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay. 1787–88. Federalist Papers.