A yearslong effort to give 17-year-old California residents a chance to vote in primary elections if they will be 18 in time for the following general election gained momentum Thursday after a measure backed by Assemblyman Kevin Mullin passed off the California Assembly floor.
Also known as Assembly Constitutional Amendment 4, the measure aimed at empowering the state’s youngest voters to participate in their democracy will head to the state Senate, marking a small victory for Mullin, D-South San Francisco, whose first two attempts to propose the amendment fell short of a state Assembly floor vote. He said the step was some 16 years in the making, noting his father Gene Mullin, who served as a member of the state Assembly and was a longtime civics teacher, also attempted to pursue the legislation.
Though Mullin, who also serves as the Assembly’s speaker pro tempore, commended California for setting a forward-thinking example on most voting and elections issue, he felt the state is behind the curve with regard to allowing teens who will be old enough to vote in general elections to have a say in the choices before them. Though he acknowledged the effort has in the past been framed in a partisan context, Mullin noted 24 other states have allowed what he is proposing and research has shown young voters are increasingly declining to state a party affiliation when they register to vote.
“The effort really is about civic participation and engagement of young people,” he said. “Hopefully, they become habitual voters.”
As a proposed amendment to the California Constitution, ACA 4, if passed by the two-thirds of the state Senate in the coming weeks, it also needs to be approved by voters to take effect. Mullin said the earliest ACA 4 might appear on the California ballot is the March 2020 primary election, and, if approved by voters then, eligible 17-year-olds will be able to vote in primaries as early the 2022 election cycle.
Of the 58 votes ACA 4 garnered on the state Assembly floor Thursday, two were from Mullin’s Republican colleagues. Acknowledging California Democrats’ supermajority in the state Legislature was helpful in garnering votes with the state Assembly, Mullin expected the measure to face hurdles in the state Senate.
But he was hopeful his colleagues from both sides of the aisle would appreciate the importance of establishing a practice of voting while teens are in high school, noting that not all who graduate from high school will end up in environments that are conducive to participating in their democracy. By requiring a teen to be 18 by the time a general election is held before they can vote in the primary, ACA 4 is on strong constitutional and legal footing, added Mullin. Though he acknowledged the heavy lift needed to get ACA 4 passed by the state Senate in a short timeframe, Mullin said he was setting his sights on a path toward getting the amendment on the March 2020 primary ballot out of concern that a delay might shift the measure to the November 2020 general election ballot, where several other measures are likely to appear.
Mullin also felt the March 2020 primary election would offer a platform allowing legislators to discuss the importance of participation in primary elections, adding he would aim to discuss the issue with presidential candidates on both parties if ACA 4 appears on the ballot then.
For Mullin, the potential for California’s youngest voters to become lifelong participants in the most fundamental act within their democracy is at stake with ACA 4’s success.
“I believe downstream you will see stronger voter participation if we do this,” he said.
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