This is a modified version of the original story by Elena Neale-Sacks for use in classrooms.
A proposal to give younger people a greater voice in elections was rejected in November 2020 by about 55% of California voters.
Proposition 18 would have allowed 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections if they turned 18 by the next general election. For a variety of reasons, many expected Prop 18 to pass. It had the support of Governor Newsom and Secretary of State Alex Padilla. It also had the support of the California League of Conservation Voters and the state Democratic Party. Donors also gave nearly $1 million to help it get passed. One notable donor was Patty Quillin. She is a philanthropist and the wife of Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings.
At least 18 other states and Washington, D.C. allow 17-year-olds who would be eligible for the next general election to vote in primaries. Yet Proposition 18 won approval in only six of California’s 58 counties. It only passed in Los Angeles, Mendocino, and a few Bay Area counties.
Kevin Mullin was a joint author of the bill. He is the Assemblymember from San Mateo. He was disappointed when it did not pass. He vowed to continue to pursue change. “Prop. 18 would have helped strengthen our democracy and helped build lifelong habits of civic participation,” he said. Mullin’s father Gene Mullin was a former high school civics teacher. He had backed a similar effort when he served in the Assembly.
The proposition was opposed by the Election Integrity Project and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. The Election Integrity Project is a conservative nonprofit organization.
Susan Shelley is the communications vice president for Howard Jarvis Taxpayers. She said was glad the measure failed.
“Our concern was that high school students who were in the classroom would receive a one-sided presentation about tax increases on the primary ballot,” Shelley said, “and then would be asked to vote on them… [W]e thought that was inappropriate.”
With all that high-profile support and money, why did Prop. 18 fail?
Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg is Director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University. She believes several factors may have caused the measure’s defeat.
“Younger people doubt themselves,” she said. “We constantly get about one in five young adults saying they don’t think they’re qualified to vote. So, there’s actually a fair number of young people who don’t support youth-oriented policies.”
She said another factor could be bias against young people. For many people, she explained, 18 seems to be a magical number that conveys maturity. There is no evidence to support that view, she said.
It’s surprising “in an era of teenagers really leading the way in protests and movements at the local level,” Kawashima-Ginsberg added. “They’ve proven themselves over and over….”
Arev Walker is a 17-year-old student at Berkeley High School. She is one of those young people leading the way. She’s been working with the nationwide Vote 16 campaign since her sophomore year. Vote 16 is a movement to lower the voting age to 16 for local elections. She and other members of Berkeley Vote 16 made a ballot guide ahead of the general election. They sent it out to the community.
“Our mission is really just to engage young people with voting and with democracy,” Walker said. “So, everything that we make is really targeted toward young people….”
Although Prop. 18 didn’t pass, similar local measures on the ballot in Oakland and San Francisco produced mixed results. Oakland’s Measure QQ allowed 16-year-olds to vote in school board elections. It passed with 67% of the vote. However, San Francisco’s Prop. G lost narrowly. It would have given 16-year-olds the right to vote in citywide elections.
Walker was active in organizing for both measures. She said one possible reason for Measure QQ’s success was its narrow focus on school board races. She said she suspects that voters thought, “This is a school board, they make decisions about students’ lives.”
Oakland wasn’t the first Bay Area city to take this approach. In 2016, Berkeley residents voted to pass Measure Y1. It was supposed to give 16-year-olds the right to vote for school board candidates. However, both the Oakland and Berkeley measures lacked a clear implementation process. They have not yet taken effect.