New Mexico’s high school students spend a lot of time at school. Approximately 140 hours per month, not counting extracurricular activities.
How this time is structured, financed and spent is decided by a governing school board, which the students have no say in electing. Ironically, schools are probably the most undemocratic institutions in American life.
But in New Mexico, we can change that. By allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in school board elections we can ensure that students have a say in their education, while simultaneously providing opportunities for them to be active and engaged citizens.
In our democracy today, young people turn 18 and are expected to suddenly participate in democracy, despite having little to no experience in making decisions about the public structures that affect them the most.
We don’t do this with other fundamental skills. Young people are required to learn to drive before receiving their driver’s licenses and they work in internships before beginning a profession.
We do our best to teach necessary skills in young people as future adults. But we fail to do this for civic engagement.
If we entrust young people to drive a car, work and pay taxes, why not also entrust them to voice their opinions through their vote? It seems highly contradictory and disrespectful.
We must view lowering the voting age in critical elections – like that of the public school board – as a teaching ground for building active, invested voters and citizens.
Unsurprisingly, our inability to educate young people to become active citizens has translated into our overall democracy. Citizens across the country fail to participate in elections and this is especially true in local elections.
In this month’s Albuquerque Public Schools election, voter turnout was an abysmal 2.6 percent. But it gets worse. In a recent school board election in Hagerman, no one came out to vote. This is an embarrassment and requires drastic action.
That’s why I’ve introduced the Youth Civic Engagement and Voting Act (HB 249), a proposal that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in school board elections. This would ensure that young people have a say in the systems where they spend the majority of their young lives, while also instilling life-long civically minded behaviors.
Voting is habit forming and if we can instill this core value from an earlier age, we can ensure an active electorate and thus a stronger democracy.
Detractors will argue that young people simply don’t have the understanding or maturity to cast a vote. I disagree. I have worked for many years with youths across the state and their understanding of political processes, issues and solutions are commendable.
Young people have a lot to offer to our political system and we must afford them the opportunity to participate in a meaningful way.
When we show young students that they have the power to affect the public institutions that shape their lives, we also teach them the great responsibility that comes with this power. In putting fundamental civic skills into practice at the local level, students cultivate a desire and the ability to wield civic power effectively and they are likely to continue using these skills as adults.
My bill provides a critical building block for creating a more active and engaged democracy for the state of New Mexico. By passing this measure, our state can foster an environment in which young people learn that they, too, have the power to build a better community for themselves, through one of our nation’s most powerful public institutions: our schools.
And through one of our nation’s most fundamental values: our vote.