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How important is age when it comes to holding political office? Depends on whom you ask

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Posted at 6:00 PM, Nov 15, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-16 09:51:58-05

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DENVER -- How much does a politician’s age matter when you vote?

This month, Coloradans voted one of the state’s youngest elected officials ever into office. Tay Anderson is just 21 years old but was able to convince more than 67,000 voters that he is the best person to serve on the Denver Public Schools Board of Education.

Anderson’s victory comes at a time when the U.S. Congress, as a whole, is the oldest it’s ever been and three years after Donald Trump became the oldest person ever elected president.

With so many issues at stake every election, does the age of a politician really matter? Here’s a 360 look at the issue of age for lawmakers.

Rules of the political road

There are limits to the age at which someone can run for Congress or the White House.

For the House of Representatives, candidates must be 25 when they take office. For the Senate, candidates must be 30 years old.

In order to become president, a candidate cannot be younger than 35 years old. All of these rules are specified by the Constitution.

Conversely, there is no cap on the age of politicians who are running for office. On a federal level, there are also no term limits, meaning lawmakers could serve for decades or even die while in office.

The graying of Congress

The average age of politicians serving in the U.S. Congress is going up; the average age of the 115th Congress was 57.8 years old. The average age of senators serving was 61.8 years old.

While there were younger Democratic members voted into office during the midterm elections, the party’s leadership is older, averaging 72 years old.

“On one hand you see a bit more of a disconnect between the population itself and these members,” said Robert Preuhs, a professor of political science at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “You have some cases, for instance, where representatives are twice the median age of their constituents.”

Preuhs believes there are benefits to having both older and younger members of Congress. On the one hand, younger members come in with a fresh perspective.

“You get new ideas, you get a stronger voice and you kind of mix the pot a little bit to try to bring new policies up to the top of the agenda and really push those policies,” he said.

However, change on a federal level can be difficult. When younger, less experienced members come in and can’t get the results they want quickly, Preuhs says they can get frustrated.

“It’s still a fairly seniority-based system and so it’s going to take time for those voices to be heard,” he said.

Another possible downside of having younger members is Congress is that they can be more partisan that their predecessors and less likely to reach across the aisle in order to reach a compromise.

“As these newer, younger members come in, they’re kind of driving a lot of the polarization that were seeing,” said Seth Masket, a professor of political science and director of the Center for American politics at the University of Denver. “I would say younger members, newer members are less wedded to the traditions of Congress.”

Members who have been in Congress for years have built relationships with their colleagues both within and out of their party and may have an easier time getting legislation passed.

Experience is also important, particularly when it comes to understand how to craft and pass a bill.

“For older members, it’s nice to have something of the institutional memory and to have some idea of how Congress can be run,” Masket said. “There aren’t many newer members of Congress who know what it looks like to pass a budget or to write one.”

More and more, lawmakers are being asked to take a closer look at the regulations around new technology like social media and the internet. It’s an area younger members might have a better understanding of, so they can craft meaningful legislation.

However, technology is constantly evolving and being young doesn’t necessarily mean the lawmakers understand how the tech works.

In that case, Preuhs says it’s important for lawmakers to participate in continuing education and to hire a staff that can understand the changes that are happening and challenges that accompany them.

For those reasons, a mix of older and younger lawmakers can be beneficial.

“It’s good to have youthful members who maybe understand the technology a little bit better, but it’s also really valuable to have some older members there who know how to run things, who have some institutional memory and who have some sense of how to actually put bills together and conduct a hearing,” Masket said.

A look at the presidency

When he took office, Donald Trump was the oldest person to ever be elected president. He is not, however, the oldest president to ever serve in the White House.

By the time he was finished serving as president, Ronald Reagan was 77 years old.

On the other end of the spectrum, John F. Kennedy was the youngest person ever elected president at the age of 43.

Kennedy, however, was not the youngest president to ever serve. Teddy Roosevelt took over the presidency at the age of 42 when President William McKinley was shot and killed in 1901.

Over the years, age has bubbled up into conversations about presidential candidates and their readiness to serve.

“When Ronald Reagan ran in 1980 he was considered unusually old. He was not quite 70,” Masket said.

John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are among the many who had their age and overall health questioned as they ran for president in past elections.

After a recent heart attack, Sanders is once again facing doubts about whether he should be running for president.

“There are concerns about the age of presidential candidates, certainly you want to elect someone to participate who will hold that office at least for the next four years, and so health becomes an issue,” Preuhs said.

However, Preuhs does not believe age is as big of a factor in voters’ minds these days as it was in the past thanks to modern medicine.

With the 2020 presidential election approaching, age could once again become a factor voters consider when electing the president. The Democratic field features a wide range of candidates, from 39-year-old Pete Buttigieg to 79-year-old Bernie Sanders and 78-year-old Joe Biden.

If someone who is closer to President Trump’s age is ultimately chosen to serve as the pick for the Democrats, Masket believes age will likely be less of a factor in debates. However, if a young candidate like Buttigieg is chosen, age could come into the conversation.

“Medicine has improved, but the stresses of running for president, no less being president, are still playing a real toll on even a healthy candidate,” Masket said.

What younger voters have to say

Inside of Masket’s campaigns and elections class on the DU campus, students were split on how much age really matters in politics.

Student Cidney Fisk says she doesn’t necessarily consider the age of a candidate when she is voting. Instead she takes things like the candidate’s policies and worldviews more into consideration.

Other students said that while they try not to let a candidate’s age affect their vote, they are more likely to take a more critical look at younger candidates.

“I think I’m more likely to be judgmental of a younger candidate just based on the inexperience. But at the same time, you have to worry that an older candidate might not be able to connect with younger voters,” said student Samantha Barcelona.

For older candidates, Barcelona says there is a benefit to choosing a younger running mate who can relate to a different generation.

Student Craig Shellenberger, meanwhile, said while age is just a number, he’s more likely to vote for someone who has more experience.

“That’s just the big thing for me as I believe the older you get, the more age and experience (you have) which also gives you more of an edge in the competency department,” Shellenberger said. “Knowing how to work with both sides of the aisle is very important.”

What older voters have to say

At the Colorado State Capitol, tours of visitors leave every hour to take a closer look at the state’s rich legislative history.

Part of the tour includes a walk through the Gallery of Presidents, a collection of paintings of every president that graces the third floor of the capitol rotunda.

For some older voters who were visiting the capitol recently, not age but overall health matters.

“Sanders had a heart attack a couple of weeks ago. I wouldn’t vote for Sanders because of that,” said Robert Segon.

Meanwhile, Kathleen Waymire says she’s more likely to be critical about older candidates.

“I think that if a person is in their late 70s, I would be concerned about, 'what is their health and have they had heart attacks? Have they had problems?' I do want to hope that they could make it through the presidency if they get elected,” Waymire said. “I mean, it is a rigorous job, it’s the hardest job in the world to do.”

If an older candidate is selected, she believes more attention needs to be focused on who the vice presidential candidate ultimately becomes since there’s a chance they could have to take over if an older president passes away.

On the other hand, Waymire says while youth wouldn’t automatically disqualify a candidate in her mind, she would take a more critical look at their qualifications.

“I would worry if somebody is in their 30s, have they really been able to have enough experience? I would look carefully at that,” Waymire said.

Why isn’t the state legislature aging?

Despite the overall aging happening in the U.S. Congress, on a state level, the Colorado legislature is relatively young. A big part of the reason the state body is not aging is due to term limits.

For the Colorado House of Representatives, members are limited to four terms, or eight years in office total. For the state Senate, lawmakers are limited to two, four-year terms or eight years total serving.

Senate Majority leader Steve Fenberg is not a big fan of term limits. While admitting that he owes part of the reason that he is serving as a state lawmaker to term limits, he believes voters should have the final say in how long someone serves.

“The first couple years as a legislator, you’re basically just figuring out how things work. It is a complicated system and I think it takes time,” Senator Fenberg said.

Because of term limits, the people who end up knowing the most about how the legislative process works are lobbyists who are paid to push a certain political agenda.

“The more experience the legislator has, the more likely they are to think for themselves, to come up with policy solutions that are genuine and authentic and not just serving the interest of a special interest group,” Sen. Fenberg said.

Fenberg has spent years trying to engage the youth in politics, from voting to running for office; he was part of a group that created the New Era Colorado group 13 years ago along with Congressman Joe Neguse and others to engage younger people in politics.

“What we knew we wanted to do was give young people a voice in the state level policy,” he said. “We need people to consider running for office in order to make sure we have a pipeline of young, diverse people that are coming into the political process.”

However, convincing younger people to run for the state legislature is not as easy as it sounds since the job is time intensive and doesn’t pay well.

Beyond that, getting younger politicians elected can be an uphill battle. Still, Sen. Fenberg says he hopes voters take a closer look at a person’s goals than their youth.

“More than age, they should think about, what is the perspective that this person has, and age is part of that formula, but it’s not the only piece. Some people are young at heart, others are actually young,” he said.

Does age matter?

When they head to the polls, voters are asked to take a number of issues into consideration to choose the best possible person to represent them on a local, state and federal level.

Some of those issues deal with a candidate’s short and long-term goals. Some of the considerations are about the candidate’s personal beliefs and actions.

How much a politician’s age should factor into this decision is up to each individual voter to make within the privacy of a polling booth.