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Editorial: Timing, not voter age, the school-election problem

If House Bill 249 is how lawmakers feel they can best improve turnout in school elections, they need to do some more homework.

The proposal, from freshman Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, would let 16-and 17-year-olds vote in school board elections, which are often held on school campuses and where presumably these young voters would not be influenced by teachers and school staff to cast ballots for certain candidates for extra credit.

And while it might provide for a lesson on civics – Adrian Carver, co-director of the New Mexico Youth Alliance, argues it will “create lifelong, civically engaged voters” – it won’t address the core problem of low turnout among already-registered voters age 18 and beyond. In this month’s Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education election, just 6,567 people voted out of an eligible 174,969. To rectify that, lawmakers need to take another run at changing the state Constitution to combine school elections, where often voters have just a single race or issue to consider, with other nonpartisan elections.

A reform that would have placed school contests on the same ballot as other nonpartisan races garnered nearly 58 percent of 440,000 votes in November and would have passed had it not required more than a simple majority; changing this section of the constitution requires three-fourths approval.

Martinez is right that having just 3.7 percent of registered voters cast ballots in an APS election – and no votes in a Hagerman school election, not even by candidates – “is an embarrassment, and it requires drastic action.” But his action raises more problems than it solves. As Rep. Dianne Hamilton, R-Silver City, says, rather than voting, students should be “trying to get their parents out” to cast ballots.

Lawmakers would do better to revise the outdated constitutional language that separates school elections from other contests – because back in the day that’s the only time womenfolk could vote – and make casting a ballot more than a one-race exercise or class assignment.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.