California voters in November will be asked to determine if 17-year-olds should be allowed to vote in future primary elections.
If passed by the majority of voters, the Nov. 3 ballot measure would allow any U.S. citizen who is 17 and a resident of the state, and who will be at least 18 years of age at the time of the next general election, to vote in any primary or special election that precedes it.
Both the state Assembly and Senate passed ACA 4 (Assembly Constitutional Amendment 4) with the required two-thirds majority vote in time to qualify the ballot measure for the general election—but not all representatives agree with the proposed amendment to the state Constitution.
Most Democrats say granting 17-year-olds the right to vote in primaries will improve voter participation rates and civic engagement among young people. Most Republicans contend it won’t make much of a difference.
“First-time voters should have the opportunity to participate in a full election cycle, the primary and general,” Assemblyman Kevin Mullin (D-San Mateo) said during a Senate committee hearing on June 23.
“ACA 4 would create an opportunity to engage first-time voters—many high school seniors, for example—and boost the youth voter turnout by allowing 17-year-olds to vote in the primary election, provided, and this is an important distinction, that they will be 18 by the time of the general election.”
Sen. Andreas Borgeas (R-Fresno) said the bill left him scratching his head at the inconsistencies in how adulthood is defined.
“You must be 21 years of age to drink. You don’t get to drink six months or a few months before you hit 21 because you’re that close,” Borgeas said.
“You’ve got to be 18 years old to gamble, or 21 if it’s in a casino, depending on the state. You don’t get to walk into a gambling operation if you’re a few months away from 18.”
Lowering the voting age will not increase voter participation, he said, but “just creates another strange irregularity.”
“We have a horrible turnout when it comes to young folks turning out and being part of the democratic process. That’s abysmal. That’s unacceptable. But this is not going to be the answer,” he said.
‘They Care Very Much About Their Community’
Dr. Mindy Romero is the founder and director of the California Civic Engagement Project (CCEP) at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. She testified at the June 23 Senate hearing, and said that “youth political participation is low in our society.”
In any given election across the United States, the turnout of eligible young people from 18 to 24 years old ranges from 20 to 40 percentage points lower than older age groups, Romero said.
In a recent analysis of the March 3, 2020, state primary elections, the overall turnout rate among eligible voters for the total electorate was 34 percent, according to the CCEP. But among eligible voters age 18 to 24, the turnout was 16 percent—compared to 56 percent among voters over 65 years old.
The youth number decreased by a percentage point from the 2016 primary, she said, while total electorate participation increased four percentage points.
“Everybody increased, but youth actually decreased. Again, we’re seeing a 40-percentage-point gap,” Romero said.
Romero said more work needs to be done to examine the reasons for the disparities in voter participation among the different age groups. Younger voters are “uncertain about the process of voting,” she said, and a public education system that lacks a robust civics program adds to the dilemma.
“Young people often find it difficult to connect the voting process to what they care about,” Romero said—though they’re not apathetic. “They care very much about their community.”
Though many young people are informed and want to see changes in the world around them, “they don’t see often how voting itself is an actionable step to get there,” she said. “Anything we can do to increase that saliency is absolutely critical.”
Research shows that voting is habit-forming, and that mock debates and mock elections increase the likelihood that young people will take the steps to register and vote, she said.
“We know that if we get them young, they’re much more likely to continue to vote through their life course,” Romero said.
In a June 25 Senate hearing, Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Tehama) said the same arguments were made when the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1971—which he said hasn’t led to a rise in voter participation rates among young people.
“In these many ensuing years, what has happened? Have those youthful voters gotten more engaged? Obviously not. These statistics are terrible,” Nielsen said. “In K–12 education, our civic education is just about nonexistent. We’re not motivating them.”
Nielsen said that since the Greatest Generation of the World War II era, each generation of Americans has become increasingly complacent and has taken the right to vote for granted, not realizing how sacred that right is viewed in other countries around the world.
“One thing about this generation: Maybe it’s been a bit too easy for them,” Nielsen said. Even if the measure passes on Nov. 3, Nielsen said he doubts that 17-year-olds will “come swarming into the polls.”
“I would hope so. But I doubt it,” he said.
Encouraging Civic Engagement
Civic engagement can’t start soon enough, said Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles). She doesn’t see a problem with 17-year-olds voting in the primaries.
“What is the harm in that? Let’s be clear: Voting turnout is abysmal across age groups. So let’s not criminalize young people,” she said.
“Those in the front lines of most social justice movements throughout history have been young people. The civil rights movement is a perfect example of that,” Mitchell said.
“If we capture the attention and the interest of young people fresh out of U.S. history, California history, civics classes in high school, maybe we can help turn the tide in terms of increasing voter turnout across the state.”
Sen. Bob Archuleta (D-Pico Rivera) said that since many high school students sign up for the military when they are 17, they should also be able to vote in primaries.
“The question is: What are you afraid of?” Archuleta asked. “Are you afraid of the young men and women that are protesting up and down the streets who are about that age? … Are you afraid the fact is that they will change the society in such a way that now we see equality and fairness?
“I think we should understand this is the new wave, and we should support it, and I support the bill.”
According to Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Silicon Valley), a joint author of the bill with Mullin, 17 other states allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries. California voters will weigh in on Nov. 3.