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Eye On Boise

Senate votes 34-1 for twice-amended bill to let folks under 21 run for Idaho Legislature

Domed ceiling of the Idaho state Senate chamber (Betsy Z. Russell)
Domed ceiling of the Idaho state Senate chamber (Betsy Z. Russell)

It wasn’t the original focus of the bill, but the Senate today voted 34-1 in favor of allowing 18-year-olds – rather than just those 21 or older – to run for the Idaho Legislature. The twice-amended bill, HB 12aa, originally was proposed by the Idaho Secretary of State’s office in response to a court case that pointed out an inconsistency between Idaho’s state law and the state Constitution as far as who is eligible to run for the Legislature. At issue was the requirement in state law to live in a legislative district for one year before running. But the Constitution says a person must have been “an elector of the county or district whence he may be chosen” for a year before the election.

So HB 12 proposed to change Idaho’s requirement to run for the Legislature from having “resided” in the district for a year before the election to having “been a registered elector” in the district for a year. That means the person would have had to have been registered to vote in the district for a year.

In the case of Caleb Hansen v. Ysursa, a prospective candidate for the Legislature registered to vote at the same time he filed his candidacy; the Secretary of State’s office rejected the filing, based on the one-year requirement. The case went to court, where it was dismissed on procedural grounds, but both the lower-court judge and a Supreme Court justice “said we probably ought to address that in the statute,” said Tim Hurst, chief deputy secretary of state and the original sponsor of the bill. “All I was trying to do was change it so it said you had to be a registered voter for a year to match the Constitution.”

Left untouched was another provision within the same law: That a person would have to be 21 to run for the Legislature. Actually, the Constitution didn’t specify an age limit. That was left over from when the age to be an elector in Idaho – to be eligible to vote – was 21. The state Constitution was amended in 1982 to lower that to 18.

When HB 12 came up for its House committee hearing, several members of the House State Affairs Committee objected to passing the bill as-is, saying it limited younger people from running for office. It passed on a divided vote, and then cleared the House, 64-6.

Then, the bill arrived in the Senate, where senators agreed to amend it to lower the age from 21 to 18. It took two tries to get all the relevant sections amended. Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said he wouldn’t have advised anyone to vote for him when he was 18, or 19; at age 42, he said, he was finally ready. But, he told the Senate today, “For me, this is not about the age. It is making congruent the statute with what our Constitution says.”

Hurst said if anyone had challenged the limitation on 18-20-year-olds from running for the Legislature in court, they likely would have won, because of the constitutional provision.

Sen. Dan Foreman, R-Moscow, spoke out against the change today, saying the younger age “does not afford a person the life experience necessary to make sound decisions.” But he cast the only “no” vote.

Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, had a question for Davis: If a prospective candidate for the Legislature is required to be a “qualified elector” in the district for a year, “Does that mean an 18-year-old couldn’t run for the Legislature until he’s 19?”

“That’s very logical,” Davis responded. “Right now they would be closer to 19 than 18,” by the time they met that requirement.

Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, said, “Whether it’s 18 or 19, when I look around this body and the one across the rotunda, I’m not too concerned about the 18- and 19-year-olds taking over.” Idaho has no legislators under age 30, and for years has had one of the older state legislatures in the nation.

Burgoyne said when he first arrived in the Legislature at age 55, he was younger than many of his colleagues. “While I have been here, we have gotten younger, and we have gotten more female, and I think those are very positive steps,” he said. He said if the Idaho Legislature got some 19- or 20-year-olds, their fellow lawmakers might learn some things from them.

Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, a former Montana legislator, said, “I happen to have a good friend who was elected to a different legislative body when she was 19 years old. I felt like she was an excellent legislator.” She was re-elected several times and chaired a legislative committee, Vick said. “I think there are people who are qualified” to run before they’re 21, he said. “I think that’s a choice the voters should be allowed to make.”

The amended bill now must go back to the House for concurrence in the Senate amendments, before it can head to the governor’s desk.

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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