The ballot language for Proposition 18 is clear: A “yes” vote would allow 17-year-olds who will be 18 at the time of the next general election to vote in primaries and special elections.
But here’s what that would mean within the rich contours of California’s population. If approved, the measure would extend voting rights to more young Latinos than any other demographic group. Latinos make up the majority of youth under 18, reflecting a generational divide that is shaping the state.
“What we have now are the children of immigrants and they are citizens, the vast majority, and they are gradually aging into the ability to vote,” said Eric McGhee, senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. “That is accelerating the transition to a more diverse electorate.”
In California’s most recent school year, 487,000 high school seniors turned 18 at some point during the year, according to the state Department of Education. Of those, 262,000 were Latino. And of the California babies born in 2002, who are turning 18 this year, 50 percent were born to Latina mothers, Kids Data Inc. shows.
If passed, California would be among at least 18 states that already allow 17-year-olds to vote. In Ohio, these teens have been voting early since 1981.
How Proposition 18 made it to this year’s ballot is rooted in the dogged persistence of one California legislator and his father. Democratic Assemblymember Kevin Mullin of South San Francisco tried three times to get the measure through the Legislature and his father, Gene Mullin, a high school civics teacher turned legislator, also tried several times during his tenure from 2002 through 2008.
Kevin Mullin successfully argued this year that these youngsters have “skin in the game,” and the proposal made it to the ballot. Voter approval is required because it would change the state constitution. There is no registered opposition but, during the legislative process, several groups including the Election Integrity Project California contended that 17-year-olds are not mature enough to be objective voters.
According to McGhee’s research, about 100,000 youths in the 2016 election year and another 100,000 in 2018 would have been eligible to vote early if the rule had been in place. The research did not break out race or ethnicity.
In a state with nearly 22 million voters, this crop of new voters may not seem like a big influx. But McGhee said these young people could make a difference in local elections, especially in primaries where there often are fewer voters.
Additionally, he said, it could change the demographics in a primary. Primary voters tend to be whiter and older, while those who vote in the general election are more diverse and younger. McGhee noted that all potential Prop. 18 voters also tend to lean independent.
Proposition 18 wouldn’t change the number of voters in a general election— or who is eligible—because these young people would have turned 18 by then anyway. But it gives them a chance to be part of the election cycle from the get-go.
“This is an important signal for our community to participate in the democratic process and start participating at an early age as well,” said Danielle Cendejas, spokesperson for Yes on Prop. 18.
Proponents acknowledge that passage of Prop. 18 won’t solve historically lower voter turnout among young people of all backgrounds. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, young adults 18-34 are 32% of eligible voters but only 22% of likely voters.
But Prop. 18 could help them develop good voting habits early, especially if they have someone to guide them, said Ben Monterroso, senior advisor for Poder Latinx, a nonprofit organization focused on building political power in the Latino community.
“The Latino vote is very young and people question why we are not voting more,” he said. “This proposition gives us another opportunity to engage the young in the earlier stages.”
Cendejas said Prop. 18, along with activism among younger Latinos around social justice, environmental and climate issues, could indicate more engagement from youth.
“We have seen in the past few months an activism sparked by race relations and social justice and solidarity that have really been led by young people and higher schoolers who want to see the world become what they want to see,” she said.
This is a generation who have often lived in low-income households, experienced the Great Recession as children and now are figuring out their futures amid the pandemic— and ongoing discussions about race relations in the country.
They are now driving the fastest transformation of voters anywhere in the nation, McGhee said.
The shift dates back to the early 1970s, when California began to experience large waves of immigration, both legal and illegal, that continued through the late 1990s. That trend has largely stopped because of the recession and the Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies.
But the immigrants who arrived decades ago became rooted, married, had children and sent them to school. They became a part of their communities.
Now, many of their children are becoming young adults, on the cusp of voting age. And many will be the first in their families to cast a ballot, as their parents may be legal permanent residents who can’t vote or some may be undocumented, Cendejas said.
“This is absolutely helping create more enfranchisement for Latinos,” said Matt Abularach-Macias, campaigns and organizing manager for the California League of Conservation Voters.
Abularach-Macias, whose mother is from Mexico and father is from Guatemala, has embraced his opportunity to vote.
“I grew up in a Latino household where my mom was not able to vote because she’s a legal permanent resident,” he said. “My brother was the first one to be able to vote as a representative for our family.”
Abularach-Macias became the second child in his family to vote, casting his first ballot in the 2008 general election for President Barack Obama. If Prop. 18 had been around, he said, he would have selected Obama in the primary, too.
“Creating representation for my family only happened when the children of my mother were first able to vote,” he said. “It’s top of mind for me, to empower young Latinos and create more political representation for those of us who come from immigrant families.”
Abularach-Macias said he hopes that passage of Prop. 18 encourages campaigns to target the youngest voters rather than focusing on older constituents.
Often in politics, he said, the Latino community is seen as monolithic when there actually is a range of political perspectives.
As Election Day approaches, some see the value of Prop. 18 outside the prism of racial and ethnic demographics.
“This shouldn’t be looked at as a way to help Latinos,” Monterroso said. “This is going to help the democracy of this country.”
CalMatters coverage of early childhood issues is supported by grants from First 5 Los Angeles and The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation.