By: Maria Callahan
On January 18, 2019, California Assembly Speaker pro tempore Kevin Mullin introduced ACA 4. The bill is a resolution to propose an amendment to the Constitution of California that would authorize 17-year-olds to vote in primaries or special elections if they will be 18-years-old at the time of the general election, given they are a United States citizen and a resident of the state. Mullin, a Democrat from San Mateo County, told the New York Times that he has proposed amending the Constitution similarly twice before.
The bill is now on hold in the California legislature. The state legislature’s lower house passed the bill in August 2019 with approval by 56 of 61 Democrats and 2 of 18 Republicans. At least 27 votes are required in the state Senate to pass a constitutional amendment. The California Senate is currently comprised of 29 Democrats and 11 Republicans. If passed by the Senate, California residents could see this legislation on the 2020 ballot.
The timing of this legislation could be attributed in part to a recent change in the California primaries. In September 2017, then-Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 568, The Prime Time Primary Act, which moved the 2020 California primary elections to “the first Tuesday after the first Monday in March.” As a result, California primaries will now take place on “Super Tuesday,” joining at least fourteen other states that will hold presidential primaries on March 3, 2020. The intent of this legislation was to give California voters a louder voice in presidential primaries. An earlier primary means presidential candidates must focus their efforts on California earlier in the primary process. Per Senator Ricardo Lara, “the Prime Time Primary puts California voters in the front seat in choosing our next president.”
Assembly member Mullin was a Principal Co-Author on The Prime Time Primary Act. In a statement made after Governor Brown’s signature, Mullin said that the Act “gives all Californians a more powerful voice in presidential primary elections.” This statement, however, doesn’t take into account the significant number of potential voters who will turn 18 after Super Tuesday, but before what would have been a June primary. These young people will be shut out of the opportunity to shape the ballot on which they will vote in November.
Allowing this population of young people to vote could have a significant impact beyond the 2020 primary. Empirical evidence suggests the earlier in life a person votes, even if only by a few months, the more likely they are to develop voting as a lifelong habit. The legislation is not unprecedented or even unusual. As of April 2016, 24 states plus the District of Columbia allow 17-year-olds to vote in at least some presidential primaries or caucuses. Because policymakers can implement this by either state law or party rule, the reform is inconsistent even among parties in the same state. In five of these states, 17-year-olds are only permitted to vote in the Democratic caucus.
Many civically engaged young people are on the front lines in California advocating for ACA 4 or other similar policy reform. Ryan Beam is a high school senior in Santa Cruz County who will be one week too young to vote in the 2020 California primary. In an Op-Ed published by the Los Angeles Times, Beam argues that under the current standards his “only real choice in November 2020 will be whether to rubber stamp one of the nominees pre-selected by citizens whose interest in the outcome of the election is likely no greater than [his] own.” Because ACA 4 will not be presented to California voters until November 2020 at the earliest, its outcome will not ultimately affect the young people who are shut out of the 2020 primary. However, if passed it has the potential to influence California elections, and the voting habits of its voters, for decades to come.