Certain 17-year-olds would be able to vote in primary elections under a bill now on its way to Gov. Susana Martinez.
The measure would allow 17-year-olds to vote in the primary if they will turn 18 before the general election.
Rep. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, has sponsored the bill for three years as a way to interest younger people in government and politics. His proposal had previously cleared the House of Representatives, but until Wednesday it had never made it through the Senate.
Senators voted Wednesday for the measure 24-16. House members approved it 10 days ago 41-26.
“I’m excited for the young people who will be affected by this and have a voice,” Steinborn said. “It’s also nice that it will happen for many while they are in high school.”
Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, sponsored the bill on the Senate side. Like Steinborn, Moores said the intent is to get younger people engaged in the political process.
For Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, the bill brought back memories of Congress deciding in 1971 to amend the U.S. Constitution to lower the voting age from 21 to 18. The states later ratified the change, making voting rights for 18-year-olds the 26th Amendment to the Constitution.
Rue turned 18 in 1972, an era when teenagers sought the right to vote because many were being sent to war in Vietnam but could not cast a ballot at home.
“It was a seminal point in our lives,” Rue said. “We were proud that, at 18, we could vote in a presidential election.”
The second-youngest senator, 30-year-old Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, also voted for the bill. He addressed certain critics of the measure who have said the state constitution doesn’t allow 17-year-olds to vote. “The primary is just a nomination,” not an election in which an office is filled, Pirtle said.
Moores said the state Constitution actually is so outdated that it lists the voting age as 21, even though 18-year-olds have been voting in New Mexico for more than 40 years.
A mix of Republicans and Democrats opposed the bill.
Sen. Lisa Torraco, R-Albuquerque, voted against the measure on the grounds that the new voter group would lack maturity. She said 17-and-a-half -year-olds shouldn’t vote because “their brain hasn’t fully developed.”
Torraco said the reason that 17-, 16- or 15-year-olds aren’t permitted to vote is that “adults have to make certain decisions for children. Voting is not a civics lesson. Voting is a tremendous responsibility that has great implications.”
Steinborn said he is optimistic that Martinez will sign the bill into law, given that she gave it a message so it could be on the agenda for the 30-day legislative session.
Even if Martinez signs the bill, the provision for 17-year-old voters would not go into effect until July 1, some three weeks after this year’s primary election in New Mexico. That means the soonest 17-year-olds would vote in a state primary would be 2018.