As students returned to Berkeley High School (BHS) last month, lawmakers in Sacramento had just voted overwhelmingly to pass an amendment that would lower the voting age in California from 18 to 17, granting many young people the chance to vote in multiple state-wide elections each year.
The measure, which passed 57-13 in the State Assembly on August 22, 2019, still needs to be approved by at least two-thirds of the State Senate before going into effect. The last time California saw a shift in the age of its voters was in 1971 when the 26th Amendment lowered the federal voting age to 18.
If approved, the measure would allow 17-year-olds to vote in two different kinds of elections: primary and local/special elections. In state-wide primary elections, 17-year-olds are to be given the chance to vote for presidential primary candidates as long as they registered for the party in which the primary election is being held. In addition to selecting
primary candidates, younger voters could make decisions on their local representatives, and vote in special elections, which are held intermittently, such as when a politician’s seat needs to be filled because of their retirement or for other reasons. The one exception to a 17-year-old’s political decision-making ability would be that they are not allowed to vote in general elections, which determine the next president.
Kevin Mullin, a Democratic Assemblyman representing San Francisco, is one of the proponents of the new bill. He believes that it is time for the state of California to join several other states in allowing 17-year-olds to vote. As of 2019, 16 states have allowed young people under 18 to vote. Mullin also believes that this issue has nothing to do with politics, pointing out that Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, and South Carolina have all voted consistently for Republicans in recent decades, although those states also lowered their voting age to below 18.
Despite its popularity among youth and state leadership, the introduction of this measure has come with some controversy and has faced opposition by some conservative state lawmakers. Some of the measure’s Republican opponents, like Assemblyman James Gallagher, have expressed concern that 17-year-olds, who are considered minors under the law, could easily be swayed into voting one way or another by the adults in their lives, such as their parents and teachers.
Additionally, Assemblyman Gallagher argued that while the lower voting age was being marketed as a way to expand democracy, those trying to pass it were doing so for different motives. These other motives include using the legislation to attract more Democratic voters in California, because younger voters are statistically shown to support more liberal positions on policy issues.
The conversation regarding voting age has expanded to high schools including BHS. Sadie Fleig is a BHS senior as well as a local organizer for Vote 16, an organization that focuses on youth outreach for future civic engagement and the expression of young people’s opinions.
When asked about why she believes that the voting age should be lowered, Fleig made a different case for allowing more of the younger generation to vote, saying “Today’s youth should be able to vote, because they are just as affected by political issues as anyone else.” She also believes that younger voters are “educated and responsible enough to vote.”
“Today’s youth should be able to vote, because they are just as affected by political issues as anyone else.”
Sadie Fleig, BHS senior and Vote 16 local organizer
Fleig believes that by lowering the voting age, all ages will be greatly encouraged to vote in all elections. “When young people vote, they’re also more likely to continue voting as adults and stay engaged with their government,” she explained.
Fleig also responded to comments made by Republican state officials. These officials believed that allowing 17-year-olds to vote was a ploy to expand the Democratic voting base. Fleig responded to these comments, saying, “Youth shouldn’t be prevented from voting just because their generation tends towards a certain political party, and they shouldn’t be punished for expressing their opinions.”
Carmel Pryor, a spokesperson for Alliance of Youth Action, a program that works to build the political power and passion of young people, added that “too many young people still face obstacles to exercising what is a constitutional right — their ability to vote.” Pryor highlighted the necessity and the efficacy of younger people taking stances on the causes they believe in, saying “It is students and younger generations … that have taken a stand on issues from gun violence prevention to climate justice.”