SANTA FE - Some 17-year-olds would be allowed to vote in primary elections under a bill that advanced Tuesday in the New Mexico Legislature.
The proposal by Rep. Jeff Steinborn would grant voting rights in primaries to those who will be 18 by the day of the November general election.
Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, said young people vote in the smallest numbers of any demographic group. Letting them vote in primary elections when they are 17 years and eight months old is a way of creating more lifelong voters, he said.
His bill cleared the House Voters and Elections Committee on a 7-4 vote.
Republican Rep. Jim Smith, a high school science teacher from Sandia Park, joined the committee's six Democrats in voting for the bill.
The other four Republicans on the committee opposed it.
Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, said Steinborn's bill seemed to conflict with the U.S. Constitution.
The Constitution says that those who are 18 should not be prohibited from voting. But letting 17-year-olds cast ballots in primary elections did not seem consistent with the federal Constitution, Bandy said.
Steinborn said 19 other states already allow those who will turn 18 by the general election to vote in primaries. He said he could not speak to case law on the issue, but the trend nationally is to open primary election voting to that demographic group, he said.
In addition, 17-year-olds can sign up for any branch of the armed forces, so allowing them to vote in primaries is only right, Steinborn said.
The League of Women Voters endorsed the bill along the same lines. One of its members pointed out that the national voting age was lowered to 18 during the Vietnam era, when young men too young to vote were dying in the war.
Maggie Toulouse Oliver, the Bernalillo County clerk, appeared as an expert witness for Steinborn. She said primaries nominate candidates but do not actually elect anyone to public office.
Rep. Antonio Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said the bill made good sense on that basis.
Without the change, someone who turns 18 in October would face a slate of candidates that he had no say-so in nominating the previous June, Maestas said.
In addition to Bandy, the Republicans who voted against the bill were Reps. Bill Rehm, Monica Youngblood and Thomas Anderson, all of Albuquerque.
Steinborn said he was confident that his proposal, House Bill 157, would win approval from both houses of the Legislature. It will be heard next by the House Judiciary Committee.
Milan Simonich, Santa Fe bureau chief of Texas-New Mexico Newspapers, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-820-6898. His blog is at nmcapitolreport.com