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Arizona poised to drop legislator age requirement from 25 to 18

Advocates say younger legislators will encourage their peers to be more engaged in politics.

PHOENIX — The Arizona House government committee will hear a bill this week that supporters say will increase civic engagement and voter turnout in young Arizonans. 

The Civic Participation Act, a constitutional amendment proposed by Representative Matt Gress, a Republican from Phoenix, would lower the minimum age to run for both chambers of the Arizona Legislature from 25 to 18. Arizona, currently tied for the highest age requirement, would become the 13th state with a minimum age of 18. 

Supporters say the change will encourage young voters to take a more active role in politics, engaging more with representatives that look like them and can speak to their needs. 

But one expert says those results are far from guaranteed.

What would the Civic Participation Act do?

The idea came from a 15-year-old Young Republican named Nick Delgado, who pitched it to Gress.

Gress ran for a township trustee position in his hometown of Cyril, Oklahoma, when he was 18. Now 37, he said he empathizes with those who want to make a difference but are deemed too young to do so.

“One of the common threads in my career in public service has been care for community,” Gress said. “With age comes wisdom, but care for community is a quality that’s timeless.”

The proposal comes on the heels of the second-highest young voter turnout for a midterm election in 30 years. About 27% of people 18 to 29 voted in the 2022 midterm. About 50% voted in the 2020 presidential election, an 11-point increase from 2016.

Gress said those people, especially those younger than 25, can bring a “unique perspective” to politics.

“There are a lot of young Americans who care about their community,” he said. “They bring a really good fresh perspective to some of the long-standing problems we’re facing. Problems created by older people — people who came before them.”

Gress sponsored the bill alongside the youngest state representatives from each side of the political aisle: Austin Smith, a Republican from Whittmann, and Cesar Aguilar, a Democrat from Phoenix, both of whom are 27.

Aguilar said young people may be better fit to solve some of the challenges facing the nation.

“It definitely is a generational thing,” he said. “Young people are more tech savvy (and) they have more knowledge about how the world operates.

“A lot of things you think are nonpolitical become political. Older people make (issues) political, but young people just look at trying to solve the problem.”

Will it fire up young people?

Sponsors hope the constitutional amendment will encourage young people to engage in politics through what Gress called “descriptive representation.” 

But Tom Volgy, a political science professor at the University of Arizona, said descriptive representation alone isn’t enough to make a change. 

“Reducing the age is not very important unless what that means is that those people 18 to 25 would speak to issues that people 18 to 25 would care about.”

He said being young and advocating for young people’s issues aren’t one in the same. One can be young and advocate for older people, or be old and advocate for younger people. Volgy pointed to U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent and past presidential nominee, as an example of the latter.

“Some people in their 20’s can’t address those issues,” he said. “Given the divisions in our society right now, my guess is people 18 to 25 are likely to reflect these divisions the same as (older representatives do).

Francisco Pedraza, a political science professor from Arizona State University, agreed that young legislators would have to speak to their peers’ issues to increase their civic engagement, but he said that’s a lot more likely that Volgy makes it seem.

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A politician like Sanders is rare, he said, and in most cases, youth are far more likely than older people to care about youth issues.

But allowing young people to run for office doesn’t mean they’re likely to win, Volgy said. 

“There’s a reason why elected officials are typically older,” he said. “You need experience to know how to run and how to run successfully.”

Rather than gaining political experience at such a young age, Volpy said he’d rather see Arizonans pursuing education.

“The age between 18 and 22 is very critical for people getting a higher education,” he said. “People who have the chance to get a bachelor's degree and don’t never catch up in terms of economic well being.”

But people like Aguilar can do both. 

Aguilar served as a student body senator at Northern Arizona University when he was 18, managing a budget of $1 million dollars. 

“A lot of people get involved in government at an early age,” he said. “They’re already getting experience.”

‘A youth movement’

In 2022, 10 people younger than 25 were elected to state legislative positions across the U.S. Four of them were younger than 20. 

While a small percentage of all legislators, it represents a stark contrast from the average. At the start of the 117th Congress, the average age of members of the House was 58, and average for senators was 64. In Arizona, the average state representative’s age is 53 while the average state senator’s age is 56.

“I think you’re just seeing a youth movement,” Aguilar said.

Young politicians are particularly successful in New Hampshire. Of the 25 youngest state legislators in American history, 14 of them hail from New Hampshire.

“The proof is in the pudding," said state Representative Jonah Wheeler, a Democrat from Peterborough, New Hampshire. “New Hampshire is a civically engaged state. They are vocal and passionate about what happens in their community.”

Wheeler took office in December at age 19. 

“Everyone should feel there’s a place for them in the halls of Congress,” he said. “That includes young people, who have just as much a voice as older people.”

Wheeler was elected alongside Valerie McDonnell, who was 18 years and 196 days old when she took office on Dec. 7, making her the youngest current state legislator in the country and the third youngest of all time. 

“I think I surprised many people,” she said. “I didn’t realize I was the youngest person until after I won.”

She joked that people thought she was selling Girl Scout cookies when she went knocking on doors. 

Both McDonnell and Wheeler say their perspectives as young people help them to look at old problems in new ways, and both said their candidacy and subsequent wins inspired more political interest and involvement from their peers. 

“(Winning the election) inspired some of my classmates (and) people I knew to text me and say ‘oh, that’s cool. Maybe I can do that,’” McDonnell said. 

She said there’s no reason why people of voting age shouldn’t run for office.

“The voting age of the population is 18 years old,” she said. “These people are deemed qualified to make these decisions, so they, as society has decided, are qualified to have a larger say." 

Pedraza believes people like McDonnell and Wheeler will soon populate the halls of the Arizona Legislature if the Civic Participation Act is passed. 

“A lot of folks younger than 25 feel really strongly about important issues, he said. “They’ll think to themselves, ‘why wait?’”

Being an amendment to the state constitution, the decision would be left in the hands of the voters if the bill is first approved by the House and Senate. 

The House government committee will hear the bill on Jan. 25 at 9 a.m. to decide whether it goes to the House floor. 

Follow @JournalistJoeAZ
Categories / Government, Politics, Regional

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