Lakewood High School junior Spencer Wilcox is 16 and, unlike a lot of kids his age, is very invested in politics. He’s the president of the Colorado High School Democrats, and has worked on voter registration drives and educational campaigns to get more young people involved.
Wilcox has been looking forward to participating in the Democratic caucuses ahead of the June 2022 primaries, thanks to a 2019 Colorado law that lets 17-year-olds do that and vote in state and presidential primaries if they’ll be 18 by the time the general election comes around.
But 17-year-olds might actually be out of luck. Voters passed Amendment 76 to the state constitution in November, which specifies that only U.S. citizens 18 and up can weigh in during elections, so lawmakers have to decide what to do about the conflict.
“Every single 17-year-old that I knew that was eligible for this presidential primary exercised their right to vote during it,” said Wilcox, who at the very least can vote in November 2022 because he’ll have just turned 18. “This is something that we really want to do. We want to be involved with the political process, and the passage of this amendment put that in jeopardy.”
The primary purpose of Amendment 76 wasn’t really about the age at which people are eligible to vote. It was about citizenship, changing the state constitution to say “only a citizen” rather than “every citizen.” (The measure was part of a nationwide movement led by Florida nonprofit Citizen Voters Inc.)
The citizenship requirement already is in federal law, but backers said they wanted to make sure local jurisdictions don’t allow non-U.S. citizens to vote in any election. Opponents called it anti-immigrant and confusing.
Still, Scott Gessler, attorney for the Amendment 76 backers (and Colorado’s former secretary of state), said the intent and language was clear: 18 is the minimum age to vote.
The state now has three options: Repeal the 2019 statute, leave it on the books but still follow the constitutional amendment (the constitution trumps state law), or have a 17-year-old sue for a decision, Denver attorney and DU professor Christopher Jackson said.
Colorado is one of 18 states (plus Washington, D.C.) that gives 17-year-olds advance voting capabilities. And in 2020, Colorado’s young voters made up the largest voting bloc.
In the presidential primary in March 2020, 10,063 17-year-olds voted — 56% unaffiliated, 26% Democrat and 18% Republican (one person voted Libertarian), according to data provided by the Secretary of State’s Office.
In the June 2020 state primary, 4,380 17-year-olds voted — 54% unaffiliated, 29% Democrat, 16% Republican and less than 1% Libertarian.
Both times, a larger percent of Colorado’s 17-year-old eligible voters turned out than the next age group, 18-34 year olds.
“It showed they were really ready to have a voice in our democracy ,and we believe it’s their right to have a choice on who’s going to be on the ballot in the general election when they’re 18,” said Nicole Hensel, the executive director of New Era Colorado, a civic engagement organization that fought to keep access for 17-year-olds.
Sam Romig of Golden dropped off his ballot in the March 2020 primary — at the time, he was 17, so it was his first election — and said it felt freeing.
“It was cool. … It’s so much talking and so much conjecture up to the election, you finally are able to make a difference in it,” the now 19-year-old said.
And Colorado Springs resident Emma Tang didn’t even hesitate to vote as a 17-year-old. The importance of doing so was something her immigrant parents had passed onto her.
“It’s important for me to make my voice feel heard because as a young person, a lot of people expect us not to know what’s going on,” said Tang, now 19. “But when we do know, they kind of tell us that ‘you’re too young, you shouldn’t be in this space.’ So it’s a weird kind of paradox of what people expect from the youth.”
A legislative committee that’s tasked with making sure the state’s laws work with each other or recommend changes has taken up the issue twice this year, and decided to hold off on a position as of late April.
Democratic Sen. Dominick Moreno of Commerce City, who is on the committee, told The Denver Post that while state attorneys believe the statute allowing 17-year-olds to vote is now null and void, it’s not completely clear what should happen.
The final decision, he said, lies with the courts.
In a statement, Democratic Secretary of State Jena Griswold said she still supports allowing 17-year-olds to vote in primaries, especially because: “Colorado saw historic turnout for young voters in 2020 and it’s important that we encourage participation at a young age.”
But Gessler said the constitutional amendment sets the minimum requirements for voting and it had overwhelming support.
Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Weld County Republican and vice chair of the Statutory Revision Committee, falls in line with the opinion from the state’s Legislative Legal Services, saying the 2019 statute should be repealed.
“The voters of the state passed a constitutional amendment that made it very clear,” Kirkmeyer said. “And the statute is contrary to the constitution at this point.”
Kirkmeyer said the committee didn’t have enough votes in April to recommend rolling back 17-year-old’s ability to take part in elections. But she did understand the argument that more debate is needed, and that may take until the next legislative session.
All the while, county clerks are awaiting guidance — with the 2022 primaries still a year away.
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