A coalition of youth advocates is pushing Colorado to allow most high school juniors and seniors to vote in school board elections.
“Students are experts in their own education,” said Tezcatli Diaz, director of youth civic engagement for Student Voice, Student Vote, one of the groups calling for the change. “A lot of people on boards of education have not been in school in decades or have not had children in school in decades.”
A bill sponsored by state Sen. Dominick Moreno, who also serves on the Adams 14 school board, and state Rep. James Coleman, both Democrats, would make Colorado the first state in the nation to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in school board elections. The officials who oversee Colorado’s elections said they understand the desire to expand the franchise, but they also have some practical concerns.
The push comes amid a wave of youth activism on everything from climate change to immigration and amid national conversations about lowering the voting age for presidential and other elections. The city of Takoma Park, Maryland, in 2013 lowered the voting age for municipal elections, and several countries, including Austria and Brazil, have set the voting age at 16.
House Bill 1243, scheduled for its first hearing April 2 in the House State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee, would also let 16- and 17-year-olds vote for officers on the State Board of Education and in elections to increase school district taxes or to issue debt for construction.
The goal of this legislation is not just to give students a say in local elections but to help them form the habit of voting, even in less prominent off-year elections.
While Colorado has some of the highest voter turnout in the country in congressional and presidential elections, it remains well below 50 percent in the municipal and school board elections that occur in off-years. In November 2017, when four seats on the Denver school board were up for grabs, only 32 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the biggest of the four races.
Celest Hutagalung, 15, a sophomore at DSST: Conservatory Green High School, called these kinds of turnout numbers “truly devastating” but said they could change.
“The 16- and 17-year-olds who are voting now will continue to vote for the rest of their lives,” she said.
Hutagalung was one of roughly 100 students, many in turquoise T-shirts, who came to the Capitol earlier this month to lobby lawmakers on the idea. “Our Voice! Our Vote! Our Schools!” they chanted.
Danna Martinez, 17, a junior at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College in far northeast Denver, said the recent Denver teacher strike provided a vivid example of how students are affected by decisions made by elected officials. If she could vote, she would support candidates who would pay teachers more.
“These teachers, they make doctors,” she said. “These teachers, they make lawyers. They shouldn’t have to worry about being a Lyft driver at night.”
How would it work? The idea, said Roshan Bliss, policy director for Project Voyce, an organization that trains student activists, is to “supercharge” Colorado’s early voter registration process, which lets 16- and 17-year-olds register in advance of their 18th birthday.
Pre-registration has been one of a series of practices, including early voting, voting by mail, and same-day registration, that have made Colorado a national leader in access to voting. This proposal would make those early registrations active just for school board elections.
A spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s Office said election officials support the principle behind the bill and are working on the practical issues related to separate ballots for a small number of voters.
“The Secretary of State’s Office is supportive of more people participating in our democracy, and especially in empowering young people,” Serena Wood said in an email. “We have been working with stakeholders on logistical issues. We look forward to continuing the conversation.”
Pam Anderson, executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association, said the organization hasn’t taken a formal position yet on the legislation, but there are technical concerns, starting with a provision in the state constitution that makes 18 the age at which people are eligible to vote and extending to concerns about how to protect the privacy of a small number of voters while still maintaining transparency around elections.
Right now, about 45,000 teenagers are pre-registered and would automatically become eligible to vote in school district elections, starting in 2021, if the law were to pass. Nearly 200 of them would be the only voter in their precinct using that style of ballot, and 45 percent of them would be one of 10 or fewer voters using that style.
While the law calls for these young voters to be treated as “confidential” — a process also used by victims of domestic violence and stalking to prevent their voter registration information from becoming public — it could be hard to guarantee the anonymity of their distinct ballots in an audit or a contested election. And in an environment of widespread distrust of the political process, there’s also a cost to shielding the identity of so many voters, Anderson said.
“On that spectrum of privacy and transparency in the validation of elections, it pulls us further toward privacy and further away from transparency,” she said.
That problem would be significantly reduced if 16- and 17-year-olds could vote in all elections and use the same ballots as older voters.
Coleman, of Denver, said he wants young people to feel like they have a say in the policy decisions that affect them most. He’d like to explore other ideas not included in this legislation, like having a student serve as a non-voting, ex-officio member of the school board or expanding the practice of convening student school boards that can bring ideas to elected officials.
“I want them to feel like they have a voice without being patronized,” he said.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.