Measures Could Bing Youth to State Races

 

Distracted by lively presidential and gubernatorial races, Missourians might overlook Wes Upchurch's long-shot campaign for secretary of state. Upchurch is a Libertarian facing a popular Democratic incumbent - and he is 21 years old.

"It's hard to get people to take you seriously," said Upchurch, a Web designer working toward a multimedia degree. "I just started volunteering and going out to campaign booths and getting to know people and networking. Networking - just like to get any job."

Some state lawmakers think fresh-faced contenders like Upchurch could attract more young people to politics. Colorado and Hawaii have ballot measures in November that would lower the age requirements for certain state offices.

Colorado's referendum would lower the eligibility age to run for the General Assembly to 21 from 25. Hawaii, which already allows 18-year-olds in its Legislature, is considering knocking five years off the age requirement to run for governor and lieutenant governor, setting it at 25.

Upchurch said he supports lower age thresholds for state offices. While his state restricts state House seats to those 24 and up, some offices, including secretary of state and treasurer, require one-year residency in Missouri but no formal age minimum.

Missouri's senators, governors and lieutenant governors must be 30. "I would have run as a state representative if I could have," Upchurch said, noting that district races require less door-knocking than statewide campaigns.

Hawaii is one of 14 states to permit 18-year-olds in both houses of the state Legislature, according the National Conference of State Legislatures . Colorado would join more than half the states to set the lower house minimum age at 21. Most state senates accept members at 25.

THE YOUNGEST IN OFFICE NOW

The governors of 33 states must be at least 30, according to the Council of State Governments . Hawaii would join seven states to set the governor's age even lower, at 25: Arizona, Illinois, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada and New York. And six states - California, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont and Washington - could elect an 18-year-old governor.

By comparison, U.S. presidents and vice presidents must be at least 35. The assassination of William McKinley made Theodore Roosevelt the youngest U.S. president at age 42, followed closely by John Kennedy at 43. The minimum age to serve in the U.S. Senate is 30, and U.S. representatives can be as young as 25.

Colorado state Sen. Steve Johnson (R) said he had no hesitation when a group of young people asked him to sponsor the measure. "I've always had an interest in working with young people on issues," the 48-year-old said. "This seemed like a no-brainer issue to me."

Johnson said he hopes that opening up races to "candidates that look like them and appeal to them" will increase youth political participation.

Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, studied elected leaders under 30 for a 2004 report .  "The image of public leadership is not the image of a 20-year-old," she said. "It is an image of a white man of middle age." Mandel said this sends a clear message about public office to young people: "If I want this, it's for later."

Hawaii state Sen. David Ige, a 51-year-old Democrat, wants young people to get involved now. "The process is better served with a broad range of perspectives," he said. Ige said young people in his state are invested in key issues, including affordable housing and environmental sustainability.

Some elder statesmen are not convinced. Colorado's oldest state legislator, 75-year-old Rep. Alice Borodkin (D), opposes the referendum. "It's not that I don't like younger people," she told Stateline.org . "It is that they are not mature enough nor have had life experience to guide them through difficult issues and decisions. I have seen some of these people in action, and I can see that they are very smart, but lacking in the decision-making process."

Upchurch agreed his peers are unready for some offices, but he advocates a graduated approach. "State ages should be lower than federal ages," he said. "You want people to move up through politics and learn."

He reaches other young voters with a robust Web presence. "I do Web design for a living," he said. "I understand Internet marketing. I have a pretty good following on Facebook and MySpace."

Mandel said young voters are particularly energized this year, pointing to youth participation in the presidential campaigns of Ron Paul and Barack Obama and the popularity of political entertainers like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart.

But she cautioned that savvy candidates cannot rely on the youth vote. "To get elected, they must appeal to the broad middle," she said, emphasizing that older voters are still most likely to cast a ballot.  

Upchurch said he is proud of his broad appeal, reflected in a recent letter of support from a man nearly 90. "That's awesome," Upchurch said. But he's realistic about his chances, being up against a well-favored incumbent, Robin Carnahan, who has much less to prove. "I haven't even seen her put a sign out yet," he said.

The measures in Colorado and Hawaii likely will fair better on Election Day. Ige and Johnson said they are not investing any funds in promoting the initiatives, but they hope higher turnout for the presidential election will translate into "yes" votes.

"I would not expect there to be a rush on elected office" if the measures pass, Mandel said. Young people still contend with the time demands of college, first jobs and establishing personal relationships, she said.

Upchurch predicts a gradual shift. "Over time, we'll see more young people able to prove themselves," he said.

 
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