Now, more than 40 years later, state Rep. Jeff Steinborn has momentum for his bill that would reduce the minimum age to vote in New Mexico primary elections
The state House of Representatives on Monday approved his bill allowing 17-year-olds to cast primary ballots if they will turn 18 by the general election.
Steinborn, right, D-Las Cruces, has the bill a third of the way toward becoming law. It still has to get through the state Senate in the final three weeks of the legislative session, and then it would have to receive the signature of Gov. Susana Martinez.
The House approved the measure 44-24, but one member who opposed it said the bill was on a path toward a veto by Martinez.
Rep. Nate Gentry, right, R-Albuquerque, said the New Mexico Constitution does not allow for those younger than 18 to vote in elections. Gentry said the legal means to change the system would be for Steinborn to sponsor a resolution that would send his proposal to state voters in 2014.
Steinborn, during debate on the House floor, said he believed his bill was on firm ground legally.
Nineteen states already allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries, provided that they will be 18 by the November general election. Steinborn said this was a clear sign that his bill is not one that a court would overturn.
But Gentry said the other states either had less restrictive constitutions, or voters amended their constitutions to allow for the change accommodating 17-year-olds.
He said he would be inclined to support Steinborn’s idea if he proposed it as a resolution that legislators could refer to the ballot for a public vote. But the change Steinborn wants cannot be made through a bill simply approved by the state Legislature, Gentry said.
Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said he liked the bill and believed it was fine from a constitutional standpoint.
Egolf, an attorney, said nobody is elected to office in primaries. Those running are merely nominated by their party to compete in the general election, he said.
Given Egolf’s definition, the primary is not an election but a nominating process.
“I didn’t have an opponent in June (for the primary). But I didn’t get elected until November,” Egolf said.
Rep. Paul Bandy, who often pulls out his copy of the state Constitution during debates, took the opposite view. Bandy, R-Aztec, cited wording in the state Constitution that classifies primaries as elections.
He said he could not support Steinborn’s bill because it violates the constitution that he took an oath to uphold.
Steinborn received support from a surprising source, Republican Rep. Dennis Roch, a school administrator from Texico.
“We don’t agree often, but I like the bill,” Roch said in announcing his support for it.
He called the measure “a great idea to increase voter participation.”
Roch represents all or part of seven counties. He said primary elections often are the only races with candidates in his far-flung district of northeastern New Mexico.
As a matter of public policy, allowing 17-year-olds to vote if they will be 18 by the general election makes good sense, Roch said.
In arguing for the bill in an earlier committee hearing, Steinborn said 17-year-olds can enlist in the armed forces. Like the Vietnam debates of old, he said those old enough to pick a branch of the military to serve in should be permitted to vote in primaries.
In summing up his arguments on the House floor, Steinborn said opening election booths to younger voters would make the state a better place.
“We are trying to get our young people involved in the lifelong habit of voting,” he said.
Steinborn’s proposal is House Bill 157.