The bill to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in school board elections rose from the dead Monday, advancing after a turnabout by a handful of Republican legislators.
Members of the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee voted 7-2 to move the bill forward without recommendation.
Only a minute before, the committee had voted 5-4 along party lines against the bill. All of the committee’s Republican members opposed giving it a favorable recommendation.
But then Rep. Debbie Rodella, D-Española, rescued the bill. She suggested that it be sent on to the Judiciary Committee without any recommendation.
Three Republicans then changed their vote, and some 20 students who had testified for the bill went home happy.
It was a memorable moment for Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, the bill’s sponsor. A freshman, Martinez was presenting the first bill of his career.
He said students can drive and go to work at 16, so giving them the right to vote in school board elections that affect their lives makes sense.
Monday was a school holiday for Presidents Day. Instead of sleeping in or going out to play ball, 14-year-old Daniel Guajardo, a student at Washington Middle School in Albuquerque, traveled to Santa Fe to urge House members to support the bill.
Daniel and other students said the bill could spark interest in government by the youngest generation.
Amanda Gallegos, 16, of Albuquerque, is already a college freshman. She told the committee that Martinez’s bill would be beneficial to teenagers. “Empowered students learn better,” she said.
The SouthWest Organizing Project, an advocacy group based in Albuquerque, brought Amanda and 12 other students to the hearing.
In the past, many Republicans in the House of Representatives have opposed a bill to allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries, saying the state constitution does not permit it.
An amendment to the U.S. Constitution approved during the Vietnam War gave 18-year-olds the right to vote. Martinez said the U.S. Constitution overrides any other law on voting rights, and it is silent on whether people younger than 18 can cast ballots.
Other places have given limited voting rights to younger people. For instance, Takoma Park, Md., allows 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in city elections.
A staff member of the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office did not oppose the bill, but said its passage would require some extra work. Voter rolls would have to be configured to designate 16- and 17-year-olds for school board elections only.
Martinez said apathy infects school board elections.
Nobody voted this month in a school board election in Hagerman in Chaves County. Only about 3 percent of Albuquerque voters went to the polls for their school board election, so letting teens have the vote could only help, Martinez said.