A bipartisan group of legislators wants to ask voters whether to lower the minimum age to serve in Colorado’s General Assembly from 25 to 21.
A decade after voters shot down an identical proposal at the polls, lawmakers are back with legislation to refer a constitutional amendment to the 2018 ballot, and they say the arguments haven’t aged.
“We ask 21-year-olds to pay taxes, yet they can’t be involved in the legislation determining how the state spends its money. I think it’s only fair,” state Sen. Michael Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, one of the prime sponsors of Senate Concurrent Resolution 17-001, told The Colorado Statesman.
Colorado is one of only three states — the others are Utah and Arizona — that set the minimum age at 25 for all of its lawmakers, sponsors of the proposal argue, while nearly every other state allows 21-year-olds or even 18-year-olds to run for the legislature. (A few states set higher requirements for the state Senate but allow 21-year-olds to run for the House.)
“This is an opportunity to catch up with the rest of the country,” Merrifield said.
The measure’s other prime sponsors are Senate Majority Caucus Chair Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, and state Reps. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, and Dave Williams, R-Colorado Springs.
The resolution is scheduled for its first hearing on Wednesday afternoon before the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.
In 2007, the Legislature referred the question to voters, and they rejected it by a 7-point margin when it appeared on the historically crowded 2008 state ballot.
Colorado has had the same minimum age requirement for lawmakers since the state constitution was initially ratified in 1876, and it will take a constitutional amendment to change it.
Merrifield said some young campaign volunteers approached him with the proposal after the November election.
“They were frustrated with the fact that even though they had worked hard for candidates, they themselves couldn’t run for office because they weren’t 25 years old,” he said. “That concept was intriguing to me, and I thought they had a good argument. We tell these young people they have all the responsibilities and don’t give them the right to represent themselves.”
Merrifield said he understands an argument in opposition made by what he called “the old folks” — he said he proudly includes himself among the cohort so can use the term — that 21-year-olds don’t have sufficient life experience to legislate effectively.
“But I disagree with it,” he said. “I think any young person who’s 21 years old and goes through the whole process — I think the cream of the crop would be those who would put themselves in front of the voters. I think we’d have outstanding young people and, perhaps, significant leaders.”
State Sen. Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, one of the proposal’s co-sponsors, said the change only makes sense. He recalled that New Era Colorado — a nonprofit devoted to encouraging youth to participate in the political process that Fenberg helped found and ran until a couple of years ago — worked on the measure in 2007 shortly after the organization launched.
“I don’t think age requirements serve much of a purpose, in my opinion,” Fenberg said. “If someone is old enough to vote or serve in the military, then they should be allowed to compete in an election and make their case to the voters.”
It’s an argument similar to the case Williams makes.
“Why not let the voters decide if 21-year-olds can compete in legislative races?” he said. “This proposal has the potential to create more choice in the free marketplace of politics. If we believe competition increase quality of service and a better product in an economic environment, then let’s allow for more competition in politics.”
Williams pointed out that Republican Saira Blair was elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates at age 18 in 2014 — making her the youngest state lawmaker in the country at the time — and won reelection last year.
“If any candidate, whether they’re 18 or 60, can earn the support of their community, then why not remove barriers and allow voters to decide for themselves?” Williams asked.
The 2007 referendum was sponsored by then-state Reps. Mike Garcia, D-Aurora, and Mike May, R-Parker, and state Sen. Steve Johnson, R-Fort Collins. Around half the members of each chamber signed on as co-sponsors to the measure, including several who still hold seats in the General Assembly, although all were House members in 2007 and are currently senators: Democrats Merrifield, John Kefalas, Andy Kerr, Cheri Jahn and Nancy Todd and Republicans Kent Lambert, Kevin Lundberg and Jerry Sonnenberg.