The Case for Amendment V, to Let 21-Year-Olds Run for State Office

The Case for Amendment V, to Let 21-Year-Olds Run for State Office
Thinkstock file photo
Amendment V, which would allow 21-year-olds to run for the Colorado Senate or House, is very timely in the opinion of one proponent.

"This year, we've seen young people filling the streets around issues like DACA and gun control," notes Charley Olena, advocacy director for the New Era Colorado Foundation. "The younger generation is paying attention, and all this mobilization shows that they're ready to step up and actively participate in our political system."

The measure landed on the November ballot by way of the very legislature in which 21-and-ups will be able to serve if it passes. The bill authorizing it would change statutory language that now establishes an age minimum of 25 years for those elected to the Colorado General Assembly to read, "No person shall be a representative or senator who shall not have attained the age of twenty-one years, who shall not be a citizen of the United States, and who shall not for at least twelve months next preceding his or her election, have resided within the territory included in the limits of the district in which he or she shall be chosen."

New Era isn't the official sponsor of Amendment V, Olena points out. "It was young Democrats and young Republicans who actually brought the measure forward and worked to get it through the legislature. But we care about it a lot and think it's very important. We're running a civic-engagement program where we're hoping to register 40,000 people to vote across the state, and we're using the amendment as a motivator for why young people should register and pay attention to this election."

click to enlarge New Era Colorado Foundation advocacy director Charley Olena. - COURTESY OF NEW ERA COLORADO
New Era Colorado Foundation advocacy director Charley Olena.
Courtesy of New Era Colorado
She adds that "young people tend to vote on issues they care about more than any particular candidate. So we're using the ballot measure to talk about these issues — saying, 'That's why you need to register and vote.' And young people we're talking to are very interested and excited about it whether they have political aspirations or not. Many of them don't, but they're looking for better representation of young people in Colorado as a whole."

Right now, there are a lot of them. According to Olena, "Colorado has the second-fastest-growing millennial population in the country. Compared to other swing states, Colorado has the highest proportion of millennials compared to our overall population — and young voter participation has climbed each cycle for years. We started in 2006, and we've been looking at measuring mid-term-to-mid-term turnout. From 2010 to 2014 to this year, we've seen climbing participation — and we've seen it in presidential years, as well. But right now, we're in a pretty unique political moment, and we're seeing young people at the forefront of that, including in Colorado."

Nonetheless, the state is "behind the curve" when it comes to election age limits, Olena argues. "Colorado is one of only three states that sets such a high minimum age for all its lawmakers. Only Colorado, Utah and Arizona set it at 25. Nearly every other state allows 21-year-olds or even eighteen-year-olds — or they have no minimum age limits at all." (Click to see the full list.)

Such assertions haven't convinced former state legislator and Taxpayer Bill of Rights author Douglas Bruce, the registered agent of the State Ballot Issue Committee, listed by the Colorado Secretary of State's Office as the only group to oppose Amendment V. In Bruce's voters' guide for thirteen Colorado ballot issues, he told us why he's urging a "no" vote.

"The age has been 25 for the House and Senate in Colorado since 1876 — and I don't think people are necessarily more mature now," he said. "In fact, they have a longer maturation process now than they did 142 years ago. Back then, a tiny fraction of the population went on to higher education. But now we have a large portion of what we'll loosely call millennials who may stay in school for six years or more after high school. They're not in the quote-unquote real world. There are jokes about them still living in their parents' basement. But regardless, most of them aren't working, most of them don't know anything about the business world, most of them don't have real experience paying taxes, most of them don't own property. They've led a sheltered experience, and they're not really ready to lead."

click to enlarge A New Era Colorado graphic encouraging young people to vote. - FACEBOOK
A New Era Colorado graphic encouraging young people to vote.
Bruce maintained that "some kid who may still be in school and is worried about his final exams isn't ready to vote on laws that affect five and a half million people. So this is just basically a politically correct, populist proposal that Republicans had to vote for because Democrats were voting for it and they didn't want to be perceived as anti-young people and crotchety old geezers. It's a political stunt, and it's not needed."

Olena isn't surprised by Bruce's take. "That's a really common narrative that we see right now around young people: They're lazy, they're entitled, they're living in their parents' basement. But it's insulting and false. When you look at the movements in this country pushing social change, young people are leading many of them, not Douglas Bruce."

Many Colorado legislators are closer to Bruce's vintage than Olena's, however. She cites research done by the National Conference of State Legislatures: "The average age of an adult in Colorado is 45, but the average age of a Colorado legislator is 55 — and when we look at a generational breakdown, the baby boomer generation makes up 61 percent of our state legislature but only 29 percent of our state population. And millennials ages 21 to 37 make up 32 percent of Colorado's population but only 3 percent of our legislators. That really points out that we are under-represented."

She acknowledges that "a lot of our legislators do a good job, but young people better understand the challenges young people are facing: the student debt crisis, how bad climate change is going to be in the future, how the economy is changing and shifting. It's not the same for us as it was for Douglas Bruce when he was our age. Giving our generation the chance to run and serve will give us a chance to see our priorities, our values and our needs be better represented. Young people deserve to have a seat at the table. And if you're mature enough to serve in the military and make literal life-and-death decisions, you're mature enough to serve in the legislature."
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts