Supporters ready to campaign for measure to lower minimum age for Colorado lawmakers to 21

Author: Ernest Luning - May 16, 2017 - Updated: May 17, 2017

Members of the millenial generation are pictured in this photo from New Era Colorado, an organization aimed at boosting political participation by younger people in the state. (Photo courtesy New Era Colorado)
Members of the millenial generation are pictured in this photo from New Era Colorado, an organization aimed at boosting political participation by younger people in the state. (Photo courtesy New Era Colorado)

Supporters are lining up to get behind a referendum approved by lawmakers to ask voters next year whether to lower the minimum age to serve in the General Assembly from 25 to 21.

“We’re grateful to our legislators for putting this question to the voters,” said Lizzy Stephan, executive director of New Era Colorado, an organization that encourages political participation by young residents. “Colorado has long led the country in making our elections more fair, modern and accessible, but in allowing young people to hold elected office we’re needing to play catch up a bit.”

Colorado is one of just three states — the others are Utah and Arizona — that set the minimum age for all lawmakers so high, although some states set a higher requirement for serving in the Senate but have a lower minimum age for House members. (According to a table distributed at committee hearings by the bill’s sponsors, 13 states have an even lower minimum age for lawmakers in both chambers than the 21 years proposed in the ballot measure, including three that don’t specify a minimum age at all and 10 that set it at 18.)

That’s one reason cited by the bipartisan sponsors to refer a constitutional amendment to state voters. Colorado has had the same 25-year-old minimum since the state ratified its constitution in 1876.

The resolution to send the question to the ballot passed 29-6 in the Senate and 45-20 in the House.

State voters rejected the proposal a decade ago, defeating an identical ballot measure by 7 points. It’ll have to win 55 percent of the vote in 2018 under stricter rules governing constitutional changes adopted by voters last year.

While some organizations — including New Era, which was in its infancy — supported the measure in 2008, none reported spending any money to boost it, and it doesn’t appear there was much active campaigning on behalf of the referendum. Stephan and organizers involved with young partisans say that’ll be different next year.

David Sabados, who chairs the Colorado Young Democrats and was recently elected 1st vice chair of the state party, testified in support of the referendum this time around and told lawmakers the measure likewise has the support of his counterparts across the aisle, the Colorado Federation of Young Republicans.

“(We) both were supportive and we don’t see it as a partisan issue,” he told The Colorado Statesman.

The Young Democrats of America, represented by one of the organization’s vice presidents, Danielle Glover, and Colorado Common Cause also testified in support of the resolution.

“We will be enthusiastically supporting this ballot measure,” Stephan told The Statesman. “In 2018, we’ll be registering tens of thousands of young Coloradans to vote across the state so we’ll be able to have face-to-face conversations with them about the importance of this measure. We’ll also do an extensive voter education effort to make sure young voters have everything that they need to cast their ballot — including distributing at least 100,000 voter guides with information on each of the ballot measures that Coloradans will be voting on next fall.”

“We know a measure like this will motivate volunteers to get engaged, too, and can catch the attention of young voters for a critical election,” she said.

The resolution’s prime sponsors are state Sen. Michael Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, Senate Majority Caucus Chair Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, and state Reps. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, and Kevin Van Winkle, R-Highlands Ranch.

According to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures, the average age of a Colorado legislator in 2015 was 55, a full decade older than the average age of the state’s adult population. The Colorado average was just a year younger than the average age of legislators across the country, which was 56. According to the report, New Hampshire had the oldest average age for lawmakers at 64, followed by Idaho at 62. The states with the youngest lawmakers, on average, were Florida and Michigan, both at 51, although Puerto Rico beat them both with 49 as the average age of its legislators.

The 2007 referendum — which placed the question on Colorado’s historically crowded 2008 ballot — was sponsored by then-state Reps. Mike Garcia, D-Aurora, and Mike May, R-Parker, and state Sen. Steve Johnson, R-Fort Collins. Around half the members of each chamber signed on as co-sponsors to the measure, including several who still hold seats in the General Assembly, although all were House members in 2007 and are currently senators: Democrats Merrifield, John Kefalas, Andy Kerr, Cheri Jahn and Nancy Todd and Republicans Kent Lambert, Kevin Lundberg and Jerry Sonnenberg.

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.