Opinion Split On Legislation That Would Allow 16- And 17-Year-Olds To Vote In Local Elections In New Mexico

Capital High School social studies teacher Eric Brayden talks to seniors about economic choices during an in-class assignment Thursday. Brayden is enthusiastic about getting kids registered to vote and participating in government as soon as possible. Photo by Jim Weber/The Santa Fe New Mexican

By Robert Nott and Jessica Pollard
The Santa Fe New Mexican

Standing outside a crowded classroom at Capital High School, Monica Loya, 19, and Maxamillano Quintana, 18, say issues like gender identity, climate change and immigration might rise to greater prominence if more people directly affected by them were able to vote.

People like 16- and 17-year-olds.

Loya and Quintana spent this past November helping register 120 of their peers at Capital to vote and note those in their age group — Generation Z — were politically ignited by the Donald Trump presidency and the rising influence of social media.

As the Legislature mulls a bill that would put the vote — at least on local issues — in the hands of people who aren’t recognized as adults, students like Loya and Quintana are preparing to defend their peers from those who question whether 16- and 17-year-olds are mature enough to enter the voting booth.

Their response: Yes, we are.

“It will give the kids who want to do it a chance,” Loya said of the legislation introduced last week. “It could also prepare them for big votes in the future.”

Senate Bill 8, dubbed the New Mexico Voting Rights Act, aims to increase voter participation and access to the polls through a number of measures — including allowing 16- and 17-year-olds across the state to vote in local elections. 

In the long run, advocates for the idea say the change will cement lifelong voting habits and inject new energy into the state’s voter base. If enacted, the bill would make New Mexico the first state to expand local ballot access to teens, though several cities across the country, including five in Maryland, allow people of those ages to vote in municipal elections. (The federal voting age is 18, but about a third of states, including New Mexico, allow teens who are 17 but will be 18 by the general election to cast ballots in primaries.)

One of the sponsors of the bill, Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, said it’s past time for the initiative.

“We trust 16- and 17-year-olds to work,” he said. “We trust that they are paying their taxes. We trust them to drive a car. We trust them to have a driver’s license. We trust them to be safe on the road, to pay insurance.”

Now, he said, it’s time to trust them with a vote. 

Martinez unsuccessful tried twice before to pass legislation to give those under 18 a chance to vote in school board elections in the 2015 and 2017 legislative sessions — especially after a school board election in the southeastern New Mexico town of Hagerman failed to draw even one voter some years back. 

“Voter turnout is a real issue,” he said, explaining the need to push through this legislation now.

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said the same thing during a virtual news conference about the legislation Wednesday.

“We see around the country a lot of activism coming out of those high school kids dealing with the provisions that local governments and school boards make which impact their daily lives — whether it has to do with whether they wear masks or are vaccinated; whether it pertains to gun violence in schools; whether it provides an opportunity for queer or trans kids to feel safe in their schools,” she said. 

Whether the state — or country — is ready for that is another matter. According to a 2019 The Hill-HarrisX poll, only 25 percent of those surveyed wanted to give 17-year-olds the right to vote and just 16 percent wanted to allow 16-year-olds to vote.

Republicans, the poll noted, were more likely to be opposed to such measures, with opposition in the high-80s. Independent voters weren’t much more enthused: 74 percent were against the 17-year-old vote; 84 percent were against the 16-year-old vote.

The small town of Takoma Park in Maryland gave 16- and 17-year-olds the vote in local elections in 2013. Mayor Kate Stewart said it has paid off in increasing voter turnout and engaging young people in local issues. She’s formed a youth council to keep that engagement going and provide insight and information to the city’s governing body.

She doesn’t buy the argument some 16- and 17-year-olds aren’t mature enough to cast ballots. 

“A lot of those arguments are the same ones you hear about denying other people access to voting — they don’t know enough, they don’t pay attention, they’ll be influenced by someone else or their parents,” she said.  “That’s the same argument they made when it came to giving voting rights to women.”

In Takoma Park’s 2013 elections, 134 16- and 17-year-olds registered to vote and 59 cast ballots — meaning 44 percent of those who registered voted.

The numbers did not immediately rise in the next two elections, but the city has seen a jump in the past two elections. In 2017, 138 16- and 17-year-olds registered and 68 voted, roughly 48 percent. In 2020, 191 younger teens registered, with 132 voting — 69 percent.

Some who deal with 16- and 17-year-olds on a daily basis think the ability to vote would be educational.

“It’s a fine line to walk to make sure that teachers and the system itself is not trying to manipulate their vote,” said Capital social studies teacher Eric Brayden, who has Quintana and Loya in class. ”But I think with something like a school board [race] and having an election to participate in … I think would be a really valuable learning experience.”

Alex Koroknay-Palicz, the former executive director of the National Youth Rights Association, who helped push for the initiative in Maryland, said it stands to reason younger teens would want their voices heard at the ballot box.

“They use city parks, they go to city schools, they are victims of local crimes,” he said. “They have these lived experiences impacted very directly by government policy. And without their experience and input, elected officials aren’t really understanding the full picture.”

He agreed with others who contend such initiatives also establish voting habits that will pay off down the line. 

In Santa Fe, Monte Del Sol Charter School teen Jazmin Rodriguez, 17, feels the same way. She recalled being frustrated last year as she helped register new voters for an election in which she could not cast a ballot. She will turn 18 in September and plans to vote for the first time in this coming November’s election. 

She said not every young voter will be as interested or studied in the issues or candidates, and she expects many will not take advantage of the new opportunity if SB 8 becomes law. Still, she said, the opportunity is important.

“To have that representation in local government, to have us express our concerns and really exercise our democratic rights at this age is important,” she said. 

Other New Mexicans agree. Santa Fean Mariah Schwager, 24, said she supports the initiative, noting “16, 17, that is right around the age that you start caring about what’s happening to and around you.” She said some teens may start acting more responsibly if they are given the additional responsibility of voting. 

But some question how much experience teens have, and if they could be more easily manipulated. 

At DeVargas Center, a 77-year-old man who declined to give his name said members of the newest generation are less “naive” than he was as a teen. Nevertheless, he feels voting should start when Selective Service registration begins, at age 18.

“Sixteen or 17, you really haven’t had so much experience,” he said. “I remember at that age I was fairly easily manipulated.”

He added: “By the time you’re 18 years old, you’re responsible to the country.”

League of Women Voters New Mexico elections and voting director Renny Ashleman said the group supports the bill as a whole but is neither advocating for nor against lowering the voting age in local elections.

Bill sponsor Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said he expects considerable debate on the bill, which has a variety of facets — including provisions that would make Election Day a state holiday, create a permanent absentee voter list and allow residents who do not have an identification card issued from the Motor Vehicle Division to register online using their Social Security number. It is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Rules Committee for the first time sometime this week. 

Whether Republican senators will support the bill, with all or some of its components, is unclear. Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, said at the outset of this year’s 30-day legislative session he is against allowing younger New Mexicans to vote because they are not mature enough.

Baca did not return a call seeking comment.

Rep. Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, said he is open to discussion on the younger teen component of the bill.

“Every organization wants young people involved, and we do, too,” he said. “But at the same time you want to make sure that everyone who is involved has the experience to make the right decisions.

“I look forward to those 16-year-olds being 18 or 19 and being involved in the political process.”

Koroknay-Palicz said ultimately giving those teens the right to vote will instill a sense of political and civic involvement that could last throughout their lives.

“Lots of politicians and public policy experts warn again and again that you don’t want young people to get started on bad habits because they will stick with them,” he said. “But voting is a good habit.”


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