By Rachel Janfaza
It’s generally accepted that in the United States, a citizen can be elected president at 35, run for Senate at 30 or Congress at 25, drink legally at 21, and cast a vote in a national election at 18.
But a group of youth activists and politicians in California want to change that last part. They’re rallying behind ACA 8, a proposed bill to lower the voting age in California to 17 years old. The bill’s creators chose 17 as the critical age for voting because it gives California a chance to connect with its students during their senior year of high school. The bill has received bi-partisan support and has 35 co-authors; on August 14, it passed the Assembly Appropriations Committee and is now slated to hit the state house floor for a vote.
Almost half of the states in the U.S. already allow 17-year-olds to vote in some form or another, according to Fair Vote, but the ACA 8 would let them vote in the general election, too. Parallel movements have cropped up in other states, as well, including a February bill in Oregon that would have lowered the state’s voting age from 18 to 16. (The 26th amendment, which was passed in 1971, lowered the federal minimum voting age from 21 to 18 in light of the Vietnam War; while it stipulated that states could not deny anyone over 18 the right to vote, it does not limit states from allowing anyone younger than that to vote.)
These movements aren’t specific to state legislatures either: Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) proposed a national amendment to March’s Voter Rights Act that would have lowered the national voting age to 16, arguing that since 16-year-olds can drive and pay taxes, they should be able to vote, too. It was denied at the time, but that hasn’t stopped the movement from growing.
On Tuesday, August 13, 50 students from across California joined state legislators and partner organizations Rock the Vote and the California League of Conservation Voters at the ACA 8 Press Conference and Rally in Sacramento. There, Assemblymember Evan Low, as well as youth activists and other speakers introduced the #17toVote Coalition, which includes a wide variety of groups committed to seeing the ACA become law.
“We [as young people] have been protesting, out on the streets, tweeting, and advocating,” 18-year-old activist Tyler Okeke told MTV News. “But because we are not a significant voting bloc, there has been inaction with regard to issues we care about.”
Public schools in California typically teach Government in 12th grade; if ACA 8 is passed, activists hope to not only set up voter registration in schools, but to also harness support from civically-minded teachers to help get out the vote. By teaching 17-year-olds how to vote, and ensuring that they show up to the polls for their first viable election, activists hope the newly enfranchised generation of California voters will be more inclined to vote for the rest of their lives.
“When you vote in your first two elections, you are more likely to become a life-long voter,” said Okeke, who is a member of minority youth group Power California, echoing a Rock the Vote study from 2007.
The integration of politics and school also feels like a natural fit to 17-year-old Jonah Gottlieb, the president of The National Children’s Campaign. “The 2016 election was in my freshman year of high school. Since then, we have looked at these issues play out in class right away,” he told MTV News. “It’s obvious that we’re living in history. In class, we aren’t just learning about what has happened in the past, but what is happening in our daily lives.”
And while one of ACA 8’s major goals is to instill the habit of voting in California’s youngest residents, it also represents more than just that to Assemblymember Low, who first ran for office when he was 20 years old, and was first elected when he was 23.
“When I served as mayor, I could not afford to live in the community I represented,” Low told MTV News. “I felt that we [as young people] didn’t have a voice in our representative democracy...I noticed we needed to ensure that young people didn’t feel disenfranchised.”
You needn’t look far to know Gen Z is ready for change; that desire also motivates political action on multiple levels, from IRL protests to showing up at the polls. While American teens have been criticized for their low voter turnout in past elections, youth voter turnout skyrocketed in the 2018 midterms. Young people turned out at an estimated 31 percent, the highest reported youth turnout in over 25 years, especially given that citizens ages 18-29 are typically expected to have the lowest voter turnout of all age groups.
That history grounds much of the arguments against the bill, as opponents suggest that if youth voter turnout is already low, lowering the voting age will not help increase youth voter turnout. But according to Okeke, focusing on voter turnout is only part of the equation, and rejecting the proposal on that basis alone is short-sighted.
“The importance of the issue is not just in increasing the culture of voting, but having say and moving the needle on issues we are about,” he said.
While politicians such as Nancy Pelosi support a lower voting age, many American citizens do not. According to a Hill-HarrisX poll released in May, a majority of adults oppose 17-year-olds receiving the right to vote; even more oppose 16-year-olds voting. The breakdown is predictably skewed: those aged 18-34 are most likely to support lowering the voting age.
So many people don’t want to lower the voting age for a variety of reasons; among those, is that they don’t believe people under 18 know enough about the current political landscape to make an informed decision. David Davenport, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, told NBC News in 2018 that lowering the voting age would bring “the least politically informed, the least politically experienced, the least mature in terms of making long-term judgments and trade-offs, directly into and potentially affecting our voter turnout and results.”
While it seems like naysayers are quick to argue that kids don’t know enough to be informed, that couldn’t be further from the truth — and believing it is belies a certain arrogance and dismissiveness that could be older generations’s undoing.
“There’s a notion that, ‘Oh young people are just focused on the Tide-Pod challenge or Instagram and Snapchat,’ when in fact, when we talked to young people, we found 15 and 16- year-olds with multiple patents pending. [They’re] bright individuals who could public speak 10 times better than I could,” Assemblymember Low said. “We need to focus on the talent of young people.”
Moreover, 18-year-old Bella Robakowski told MTV News that young people have so much to lose. Her work as the president of the gun violence prevention organization Never Again SoCal was all the more galvanized when a perpetrator killed 12 people in the November 2018 mass shooting at Borderline Bar and Grill in her hometown of Thousand Oaks, California.
“We are a politically aware generation,” she said. “We are the ones experiencing what it feels like to not feel safe at a video gaming convention, a country bar to go dancing, or a movie theater. We grew up with the habit of entering a room and checking where the nearest exits are because we’re scared.”
Yet while so many young people live in a constant state of fear and uncertainty, that doesn’t mean they don’t have power — and that’s why these activists are so committed to being heard not only on social media and at protests, but at the polls come 2020 and beyond.
“Fear motivates us to be smarter and focus on the political climate. [We] see what’s happening and want to be involved,” Robakowski added. “That’s a really special thing, and makes our generation, the generation of trailblazers, frankly ready to get a vote and ready to have a say. The young people have become more politically aware than maybe ever before in history.”