Mobilizing for Change

Could California’s 16-year-olds be casting ballots?

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By Jeremy B. White

They can’t purchase alcohol or cigarettes, enlist in the military or gamble. But in California, 16-year-olds could gain the right to vote.

Sometimes.

A bill before the Legislature would amend California’s constitution to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to cast ballots exclusively in school district and community college board elections – the very races, proponents argue, in which Californians under 18 have the most at stake. They still wouldn’t be able to sway congressional or legislative contests or help pick the next president.

“I think they’re mature enough and they have firsthand experience of what’s going on in schools – they should have a voice in it,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego. “The decisions that are made at local school boards and community college boards are affecting them probably more than anything else.”

Gonzalez said her then-high-school-age daughter was frustrated that she had no say when teachers were laid off during the recession. Gonzalez noted that extra dollars flow to school districts with a large number of English language learners, many of whom have noncitizen parents who can’t vote in elections that help determine how that money will be spent.

This isn’t the first time lawmakers have sought to boost civic engagement by bringing Californians younger than 18 into the voting process. Legislation passed in 2014 allows 16-year-olds to preregister to vote.

As policymakers worry about reversing tumbling voter turnout, Gonzalez called her proposal a way to encourage more participation. California Voter Foundation head Kim Alexander agreed with that premise.

“If people can vote on something relevant to them when they’re 16 years old, they might develop a lifelong habit of voting, and if you get kids voting when they’re still in school, then you have an institution through which you can teach them how to become voters,” said Alexander, whose organization has not taken a formal position on the bill.

Because the measure would change the state constitution, it would need to win Republican support in the Legislature for a two-thirds vote in order to be placed on the November ballot, where it would then have to pass muster with voters. That could be a politically tricky endeavor, Alexander said, noting that the electorate rejected a 2002 measure to allow Election Day voter registration.

“Historically, people who vote in California have not been all that open to making it easier for other people to vote who they view as taking it not as seriously as they do,” Alexander said.

Such skepticism immediately greeted Gonzalez’s proposal. Jon Fleischman, a conservative blogger and political consultant, said enfranchising adolescents would not lead to better election outcomes.

“Part of determining the age by which people vote has to do with a combination of maturity and life experience. I think somebody at the age of 16 years old is really a child, not an adult,” Fleischman said. “This is not an age at which you’re ready to be making weighty decisions about public policy.”

Actually, Gonzalez countered, brain research shows the deliberative, decision-making capacity of 16-year-olds differs little from that of 18-year-olds. A larger gulf separates the brain function governing “hot cognition,” which refers to emotional or split-second decisions like those involved when driving a car, she said.

“We allow 16-year-olds to drive but not to vote,” Gonzalez said, “where that probably should be reversed.”