As of 2019, the United States has established twenty-seven amendments. These amendments are additions to the baseline set forth by the Constitution, regulating federal law and its impact on American citizens. While the first ten amendments were passed alongside the Constitution in the Bill of Rights, the remainder had to be ratified by the government. But what is the process for evaluating and ratifying amendments?
Authority to Amend
Article V of the Constitution allows for amendment proposals so long as two-thirds of Congress or state legislatures “deem it necessary.” From there, a national convention is called to propose and evaluate the intended amendment. While the state legislatures have never been the instigators of amendment proposals, they are the voices that vote on proposed amendments. Three-fourths of the states must vote to put an amendment in motion, giving it the final approval push that will allow it to be added to the Constitution.
In order to put forth an amendment, Congress issues a joint resolution. This measure, developed by the combined efforts of the House and Senate, explores the meaning of the amendment and requests state legislatures to vote on ratification.
While joint resolutions are similar to bills, there is one key difference: the importance of the President. Bills come across the President’s desk, but joint resolutions never reach the Oval Office for review. Because the President does not play a role in amending the constitution, joint resolutions are sent directly to the states. Therefore, to get joint resolutions out of D.C., the House and Senate must work together to come to an agreement on the terms set forth by the amendment.
Office to Office
The drafted amendment bounces around between various offices before it reaches the state legislatures. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) receives the document and uses it as the baseline for a package. This package, which goes to each state, includes copies of the joint resolution and instructions on statutory procedures for ratification of amendments. NARA’s Office of the Federal Register (OFR) also collects notes on relevant legislative history and adds those to the package, which is then sent off to states across America.
From Federal to State (and Back Again)
State Governors receive letters to notify them of the impending amendment, as well as the packagers put together by NARA. However, states that feel strongly about an amendment don’t always wait until all the materials have arrived; rather, they may vote on the matter as soon as possible.
States that approve an amendment send a document of state action to NARA. From there, NARA’s OFR holds onto the documents until all have been returned. Some states will not send anything back if they reject the amendment, but occasionally states will write to reject the amendment. No matter the case, once all of the calls for approval are collected, NARA determines whether or not the amendment is adopted. Since 50 states vote on amendments, at least 38 must voice support in order for one to be adopted. If at least 38 states agree to the amendment, NARA declares it ratified.