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Bill lets some students vote in school board elections

Legislation that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in school board elections has begun moving through the state House.

It’s believed to be a first-time proposal; no similar bill has been introduced in the Legislature over at least the past 45 years.

House Bill 249 was rejected and then quickly revived Monday in the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee, clearing the panel on a 7-2 vote.

It would next have to win the approval of the House Judiciary Committee before reaching the full House for a vote.

Supporters said it would open school board elections – which draw only a fraction of eligible voters – to a potential 50,000 young New Mexicans who now have no say over who makes the decisions that affect them.

“I believe this is going to create lifelong, civically engaged voters,” said Adrian Carver, co-director of the New Mexico Youth Alliance.

The legislation would allow those 16 and over to register to vote, but only in school elections. It may also have the effect of allowing those young voters to run for school boards, according to testimony to the committee.

Its sponsor, freshman Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, pointed to the dismal turnout in recent school board elections. Recently, 3.7 percent of eligible voters showed up to elect Albuquerque Public Schools board members. In Hagerman, no one turned out – not even the candidates.

“This is an embarrassment, and it requires drastic action,” said Martinez, who pointed out that 16-year-olds drive cars, work and pay taxes.

Republicans suggested that students of that age aren’t ready for the responsibility of voting and should instead play an advisory role.

Rep. Dianne Hamilton, R-Silver City, said students should be “trying to get their parents out” to vote in school board elections.

In the committee’s first vote, Republicans outvoted Democrats to reject the bill. But a follow-up motion to send the bill along without recommendation to the Judiciary Committee was approved with the backing of Democrats and some Republicans.