By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican
Some people think 16- and 17-year-olds should be allowed to do it, and some don’t.
Vote, that is.
Two House Democrats who believe it’s time to allow 16- and 17-year olds to register as electors starting in 2024 have introduced a bill to let them do just that.
House Bill 217 is scheduled to be considered by the House Government, Elections & Indian Affairs Committee Saturday.
The bill’s chances for success are difficult to gauge. Last year, a provision expanding the voting age, housed within the New Mexico Voting Rights Act, drew some support and criticism before it died on the session’s last day.
A similarly broad voting rights bill introduced this year already passed its first House committee Wednesday, but the legislation, House Bill 4, does not include an expanded voting-age provision.
Advocates for allowing younger people to vote say it can increase civic engagement and responsibility among teens. But critics say teens under 18 may not have fully formulated opinions on the many issues affecting them nationally or within the state.
Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, said in an interview Wednesday 16- and 17-year-olds are tuned into world events though a variety of social media platforms. She said data streams to them on a continual basis and they can use that to inform themselves on what’s happening around them.
Regarding concerns teens that age may not be mature enough to cast ballots, Trujillo said you can also say that about “immature” adults.
“You can see the results of that in the world,” she said.
The federal voting age is 18, but about a third of the states, including New Mexico, allow teens who are 17 but will be 18 by the general election to cast ballots in primaries. Fifteen states and Washington, D.C., permit pre-registration beginning at 16, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
A band of Albuquerque teens visiting the state Capitol Wednesday responded to the initiative with mixed emotions.
AJ Martinez, a 17-year-old Atrisco Heritage Academy High School student, said it’s a “really positive thing” lawmakers are considering the bill.
“Definitely the younger generation has a lot of specific vision, passionate vision, that doesn’t get considered,” he said. “It’s going to be us in control of the world — the sooner we have a say, the better.”
Kalilly Garcia, 16, of Albuquerque’s Volcano Vista High School, said while she would like “more of a say in what’s going on” she is “still forging opinions and what goes on in this building (the state Capitol) is not at the top of my mind.”
Alexa Lucero, 17, another Volcano Vista student, said she does not think teens her age should vote in primary or general elections but should be allowed to cast ballots on “things that affect us — the school board, city council.”
Eldorado High School senior Myra Lacy, 18, who just registered to vote for the first time, said leaders should first work on increasing voter turnout among young adults in the 18-22 range before working to bring in younger voters.
There may be some movement to do that. Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life estimated 27 percent of people between 18 and 29 voted in the 2022 election — likely the “second-highest youth turnout rate for a midterm election in the past 30 years, behind only the historic 31% turnout in 2018,” according to the college’s website.
Rep. Trujillo said if the bill becomes law, she does not think every eligible 16- or 17-year-old would vote.
“But given the opportunity, I think the majority would,” she said.
Rod Mehling, a longtime history teacher at Mandela International Magnet School, harbors mixed emotions about the initiative. He said in the 20 years he has been teaching, he feels we are at a height of developing “thoughtful and independent minded” teens.
As such, he said, “I see a lot of attributes that support the notion they could cast a thoughtful and responsible vote.”
On the other hand, he added, “These are still maturing teenagers, they can still be young in their ideas, latch on to something, assume they’re right about things without really knowing what it’s all about.
“Are they fully ready for that responsibility? There’s at least a question mark that has to be raised,” he said.
Larry Holland, a history teacher at the Academy for Technology and the Classics in Santa Fe, said he thinks empowering younger voters gives them “agency, a sense that they can actually influence events.”
He said in his 21 years of teaching he has found many younger teens who are vested in what is happening around the world but feel “powerless to do anything about it.” Giving them the right to vote, he said, would make them realize “their voices do matter.”
He’s not worried that 16- and 17-year olds may be less capable of voting than someone who is 18.
“I don’t think there’s anything magical about 18,” Holland said. “It’s not like all the lights turn on and adulthood kicks in and everything makes sense. I think younger kids have a very sophisticated understanding of what is going on in the world.”