Proposal to let 16-year-olds vote in Colorado school board elections advances

The next time candidates campaign for school board seats in Colorado, they might have a new voting bloc to consider.

Legislation that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local school board elections cleared the House State Affairs Committee on Tuesday. That same committee voted down similar legislation last year amid concerns from county clerks, who run these elections, and the Colorado Association of School Boards. Some have questioned if the idea is constitutional.

Young people “are persistent,” said state Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, a Denver Democrat and the bill’s sponsor. “They are highly intelligent. I have full confidence in their ability to make the right decisions.”

Even lawmakers who voted yes said they have concerns about putting it into effect and urged backers to keep working with the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office to reduce the cost and modify timelines.

The bill calls for the change to go into effect by July 2021, before the next school board elections, while the Secretary of State’s Office is asking for four years.

Gonzales-Gutierrez said that’s too long. The students who spent years advocating for the change wouldn’t get to benefit.

The proposal is backed by Student Voice, Student Vote, a coalition of youth advocacy groups.

Dylan Robinson-Ruet, now a college graduate, recalled walking out of high school in Jefferson County in 2014 over changes to the American history curriculum being pushed by a conservative school board. If students could have voted, he said, they would have had other ways to express their views.

“The students knew what was going on,” he said. “Unless we give students a real say, issues like we saw in Jeffco, where low voter turnout leads to bad policy, will continue to happen.”

Danna Martinez, a senior at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College in Denver, said she believes schools would have curriculum and tests that better met the needs of diverse students if those same students could vote.

“Too many times choices are made for us that we have no input in,” she said. “We deserve to have a say in who runs our schools.”

Right now, young voters have the lowest turnout of any age group. Research in other cities has found significant racial gaps between the makeup of the student population and the people who vote in school board elections. Supporters of lowering the voting age say that it helps establish early voting habits and produce engaged citizens. The legislation would also allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote on school-related tax and debt questions and for the State Board of Education.

Colorado has been a leader in expanding voting access. The committee vote came as voters around the state cast ballots in the Super Tuesday presidential primary. Seventeen-year-olds who will turn 18 before Election Day were able to vote in that election.

“The presidential election does not have as much impact on students as the school board election,” said Tay Anderson, a Denver school board member who won office at the age of 21.

While most school boards oppose the change, the Denver school board adopted a resolution in support.

Kayla Morrison, a sophomore at Denver’s South High School, recalled doing a unit on the school board election during eighth grade and being disappointed that she couldn’t participate.

“This would ensure that students get experience with voting before big national elections, voting on something we experience every day,” she said.

Legislative analysts estimate the change would cost about $400,000 this year and $143,000 the following year. Most of the cost is related to software changes in the voter registration database and the voter registration form. There will also be additional costs associated with printing separate ballots that only have school-related candidates and ballot measures. The state would cover those costs.

The bill still needs to pass the full House and the Senate before it heads to the governor’s desk.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Danna Martinez’s name.