With new law, 17-year-old voters mull values, candidates — ‘We have a say’

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From left, Democratic presidential candidate former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, shakes hands with former Vice President Joe Biden as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., watches Friday, Feb. 7, 2020, before the start of a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by ABC News, Apple News, and WMUR-TV at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.  A group of Aurora high school students able to vote for the first time say they’re unsure who will win their presidential vote, but that it likely won’t be President Donald Trump (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

AURORA | Colorado’s electorate just got a little younger.

Before the rapidly-approaching presidential primary next month, some 17-year-olds are gearing up to cast their first votes — making a first for Colorado history. Thanks to a new state law, 17-year-olds can vote in spring primaries if they will turn 18 before the November General Election.

“I was super excited to find out I could vote in the primary,” said Samantha Amaya, a 17-year-old eligible to vote under the new law. Amaya is an Overland High School student planning to study political science or psychology next year at the Metropolitan State University of Denver.

“We have a say,”  she said.

The voting age expansion opened up voting to about 24,000 17-year-old and active voters turning 18 before the Nov. 3 election, according to the Colorado Secretary of State’s office. Then, voters in Colorado and across the country will pick the next president, U.S. senators and state and local representatives and rubber-stamp — or stamp out — law changes.

In Colorado’s upcoming March 3 primaries, voters will pick among a slate of Democratic and Republican candidates gunning for the Presidency.

Voters will later consider party candidates running for an open U.S. Senate seat in a June 30 primary.

That seat is held by Cory Gardner, a Republican, and widely believed to be one of the most vulnerable Republican Senate seats come November. Gardner is running for re-election, but is seeing about 10 Democratic candidates compete in the primary to challenge him.

For Amaya, Kyle Siple and Semira Mahmoud — all Overland students aged 17, but now eligible to vote this spring — the law change means not only having to educate themselves on candidates’ positions months earlier than they expected to, but having to quickly dive into nuanced differences between candidates of the same party before casting a primary vote.

Samaya and Mahmoud said they were still pinning down their political views, while Siple felt more secure in-line with Democratic Party values. He backs Medicare For All and the Green New Deal, two proposals thrust in to the party mainstream by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders’ Presidential campaign bids.

Siple plans to study political science next year at MSU Denver.

The three students’ presidential preferences are still up in the air. For Siple, his priority was supporting a candidate that could beat Republican President Donald Trump in November. The two others did not say.

They’re also iffy on the details of the Senate race.

Siple told The Sentinel he was aware that a Republican was representing Colorado in federal office, but the three students did not know which office and did not know of Gardner.

They’d all like to turn the seat blue.

It’s not clear whether they and their new voting peers will sway the primary vote counts next month. The relatively small number of the newly-enfranchised young voters — about 24,000 — is a drop in the bucket of Colorado’s active voting cohort of about 3.4 million voters.

“That’s a small number of new active voters, and chances are that turnout won’t be very high among this group, since it tends to be low among young people in general, and probably a lot of them aren’t aware they can vote now,” said Seth Masket, a political science professor at the University of Denver.

“However, if we see a particularly close race in Colorado, and some 17-year old voters are particularly attached to one candidacy, that bit of extra turnout could make a difference,” he added.

The new voters could be a boost for Sanders’ candidacy in Colorado, said Floyd Ciruli, a Denver pollster and political commentator.

Sanders won the state caucuses in 2016 over Hillary Clinton, and has won popular votes in the tight Iowa and New Hampshire primaries thus far in 2020. Sanders has benefitted from high support among Generation Z and Millennial voters.

“I think, in general, they could be a valuable group for him,” Ciruli said of the new voters, noting the close finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire.

“It suggests, that, yes, a relatively small number (of voters) could make a difference if it was close.”

The students said they weren’t aware of their new voting power until a few weeks ago, and figure most of their cohorts don’t know either.

Although fuzzy on the details, the Overland students said they were motivated to vote by anxieties they share with their generational cohort.

Mahmoud, a basketball player tentatively slated to study at Texas Tech University next year, was concerned with pocketbook issues first and foremost.

“With taxes going higher, with rent and mortgages, prices are going higher…. If you are a single parent, you might not be able to provide for your family,” she said.

Siple was motivated mostly in opposition to Trump’s rhetoric about Hispanic immigrants, especially those traveling into the U.S. across its southern border with Mexico. Trump infamously kicked off his 2016 Presidential campaign attacking some Mexican immigrants in particular as “rapists.”

Siple said Trump’s rhetoric in statements like these was “really depressing,” especially at Overland.

The school, near the intersection of East Jewell Avenue and South Peoria Street, is regularly touted as one of the most culturally diverse high schools in the U.S. About 40 percent of its student body is Hispanic and almost 30 percent is black. Refugee students hail from around the globe.

Siple, who is white, said he knows Hispanic students who have lost faith in the electoral process after hearing four years of Trump’s rhetoric.

“The Hispanic community here — it is so heartbreaking. Some of them don’t even believe in it,” he said of voting. “Some of them just think it is hopeless, they won’t vote…. It’s super scary.”

Siple is registered to vote, but the others still have to turn in their paperwork before voting in the primary. Voters can register to vote and do so in-person at official voting locations, which can be found online at the Colorado Secretary of State’s office.

Although planning to vote, the students weren’t optimistic about the future of a country with rising costs of living, cultural divides and environmental collapses.

Samaya said she is “preparing for the worst.”

“I haven’t lost hope, but the way things are going right now, I might just prepare just in case,” she said.