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Lower public office age requirement discussed

Senators began debate Jan. 28 on a measure that would allow an 18-year-old to hold any public office in Nebraska.

Introduced by O’Neill Sen. Tyson Larson last session, LR26CA would place a proposed constitutional amendment on the November 2016 general election ballot that would change age eligibility for public office in Nebraska to the federal voting age. Eligibility requirements other than age would not be changed by the proposed amendment.

Currently, an individual must be 21 to serve in the Legislature and 30 to serve as governor, lieutenant governor or as a Nebraska Supreme Court judge.

Larson said the age to run for office should mirror the federal voting age, adding that 17 states allow those who are 18 to run for a seat in the state legislature.

“Individuals who already hold the right to vote and feel qualified and motivated to serve should be allowed to make their case to voters,” Larson said. “Nebraskans should be able to choose who they believe will best be able to represent them in the Legislature and any other elected office.”

Lincoln Sen. Adam Morfeld supported the proposal, calling age a “poor proxy” for determining an individual’s wisdom, responsibility or maturity. In addition, he said, allowing young people to run for office may increase their interest in the electoral process.

“This is something that’s important for young voters who are turning the age of 18, to know that they cannot just vote and serve their county in the military but that they can also be elected to serve the people in their community if they so choose,” he said.

Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln also spoke in support, saying the current age restriction on running for the Legislature mirrored the voting age when it originally was placed in the state constitution. Since that time, the voting age was lowered to 18, but Nebraska’s age requirements for holding public office have not kept up, he said.

Being able to vote—as well as volunteer for or donate to a campaign—while not being able to run for office is inconsistent, Hansen said.

“That is an uncomfortable imbalance of political rights,” he said.

Hoskins Sen. Dave Bloomfield opposed the measure, saying that the prospect of an 18-year-old governor or chief justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court should give senators pause.

“We are sent here as legislators to decide issues,” he said. “If we’re going to dump everything back on the ballot—and let every single item go to a vote of the people—we might as well adjourn today.”

Bloomfield offered a motion to bracket the proposal until April 20.

Gretna Sen. John Murante opposed the bracket motion, noting that the question must be put to a public vote and is not one that lawmakers could resolve themselves.

“Age requirements for numerous public offices in the state of Nebraska are located in the constitution,” he said, “and we cannot amend the constitution without submitting the question to the voters. We are required to go to the people.”

The bracket motion failed on a vote of 5-28.

Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus expressed concern that any decision made by the Legislature to place the issue on the ballot may be thrown out by the state Supreme Court.

He said the ballot question would address the age requirement for several different public offices, which the court likely would deem a violation of the rule that ballot measures contain only one subject.

Schumacher said some voters would be fine with an age restriction of 18 for the Legislature, but would be reluctant to lower the age to 18 to run for governor.

“If we’re going to pursue this road, we’re going to have to divide this question for the voters,” he said. “They cannot be asked to choose between conflicting beliefs.”

Schumacher offered an amendment that would have divided the measure into five separate ballot questions.

Hastings Sen. Les Seiler agreed that passing court scrutiny likely would be a problem for the measure in its original form. He said the state Supreme Court has tightened the rules regarding ballot language in recent years.

“Even with Sen. Schumacher’s amendment, I think it’s still highly suspect that this bill would receive the backhand of the current Supreme Court,” Seiler said.

The amendment failed on a vote of 17-21. The Legislature adjourned for the week before voting on the advancement of LR26CA.

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