On eve of Colorado school board elections, youth coalition renews push to lower voting age

Asked how they feel about Denver’s pending school board election, some student activists use words like “hopeless” and “frustrated.”

“It’s a decision that is made for you, and you want to have a voice in it, but you can’t,” said Madison Ordonez Erives, a senior at Denver’s East High School and a member of the Student Voice, Student Vote coalition.

“We’re the primary beneficiaries of the educational system, and it’s crazy that we don’t get to have a say,” Kayla Morrison, a sophomore at Denver’s South High School, said.

Student Voice, Student Vote, which is made up of youth activist groups, wants to change that. It is renewing the push to lower the voting age to 16 for Colorado school board elections —  just months after a bill to do that failed to make it out of a legislative committee.

The bill would have allowed 16- and 17-year-olds who pre-register to vote in Colorado to cast a ballot in elections for their local school board, the State Board of Education, and school-related tax and debt questions. It would have treated their voter registration information as confidential.

This latest attempt 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.

The previous effort to lower the voting age for Colorado school board elections failed after county clerks and school boards representatives testified against it. Opponents questioned whether the state’s constitution, which says that people who are 18 and citizens are eligible to vote, might bar the idea and whether teenagers had the sophistication to understand complicated budget issues. County clerks said confidentiality requirements conflicted with the need for transparency in an era of historic doubt in election security.

Since then, members of the coalition have met with the state Attorney General’s Office seeking clarity on constitutional questions, marshaled research on cognitive development, made their case to individual county clerks, and pressed school board candidates to support their cause. In Denver school board candidate forums, most contenders have said they support lowering the voting age. 

Activists plan to go back to the legislature in 2020 with a refined proposal and – they hope – resolutions of support from some school boards and the backing of some county clerks, in contrast to the united front they faced this year.

Malachi Ramirez, a junior and a member of the debate team at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College in Denver, said he believes Colorado schools and everyone who cares about them would benefit from student voting.

“We have the most perspective on the problems in our system,” he said. “Having us as voters is not just good for us as students but is good for everyone involved in the educational system.”

Ramirez has followed Denver’s school board election closely and is frustrated by much of what he hears from the candidates. They identify the right problems, he said, but their proposed fixes lack action steps and have “very non-feasible budget changes attached to them.” And that makes him worry about follow through.

If students could vote, he said, “I would hope that the candidates would have more responsibility for their actions.”

Ordonez Erives said that at candidate forums, she hears the contenders speaking directly to the concerns of the groups that wield influence in the election, like the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the teachers union, but not as much to students.

“It would be great to have someone we could hold accountable,” she said.

Members of the coalition include Project VOYCE, Young Aspiring Americans for Social and Political Activism, and Colorado Youth Congress. Ramirez serves on the Denver Student Board of Education, an advisory group and leadership training program that is also part of the coalition. Ordonez Erives is part of a fellowship program through the community group Padres y Jóvenes Unidos. Morrison is on the youth advisory board for Vote16USA, a national campaign to lower the voting age.

The goal of this initiative 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 of registered voters in off-year municipal and school board elections. 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.

Roshan Bliss, the organizing director for Project VOYCE and policy lead for the Student Voice, Student Vote coalition, said the future depends on giving young people a stake in the outcome of elections.

“If our young people feel hopeless on Election Day when decisions are being made for them, that’s really dangerous for our democracy,” he said. “That is a terrible way for us to set young people up to orient themselves toward our democracy.”