Like most of the class of 2024, I’m in an awkward position right now. Sure, the fact that my first year of college is online and I’m trapped indoors while a pandemic rages and my community burns is a part of that, but I’m also trapped in an electoral gray zone. Proposition 18 is my ticket out.
Along with 200,000 other young Californians, I was born during the nine-month period between March and November 3, 2002. That means I will be old enough to vote in the upcoming general election but was just shy of being eligible to vote in California’s primary election this year.
This might sound like the unfortunate but unavoidable consequence of having to draw the eligibility line somewhere. The thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. Being 18 by the general election should automatically make you eligible to vote in the corresponding primary — and that’s just what Prop. 18 would do.
Letting 17-year-olds participate in primary elections as long as they’ll be 18 by the general election isn’t only constitutional; it’s commonplace. In fact, for a state that’s typically at the forefront of these kinds of issues, we’re embarrassingly behind on this one. Ohio has allowed near-18-year-olds to vote in its primaries since the 1980s, and it is joined by Kentucky, Illinois and more than 10 other states, red and blue alike. For goodness’ sake, California: Even Mississippi — yes, that Mississippi — beat us to the punch on this one!
These states have accepted the simple fact that 18-year-olds like me have as great a stake in the outcome of an election as any other adult does. They acknowledge that many primary elections take place nearly a year before the general election and that we therefore lack an equal say in the election cycle. Anybody who pays attention can tell you that the real nuance in any election comes in the primaries — by restricting us to the general election, our votes are reduced to rubber stamps on nominees whom we didn’t have a say in choosing.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that Prop. 18 is some radical move that would lower the voting age to 17 outright. Last year, I published op-eds in the Los Angeles Times and The Sacramento Bee encouraging lawmakers to get this on the ballot, and the most popular misconception among readers was that this is some crack effort to lower the voting age. If Prop. 18 has a greatest weakness, it’s that at first glance, any headline (or proposition title) about it makes it sound less like the mundane correction to a subtle injustice that it is, and more like a potentially unconstitutional power grab (which it is not).
Confusing wording like this has sunk ballot proposals in the past. I encourage you to do your own research: Consider how the electoral gray zone came to be. Fun fact: It’s a recent phenomenon! I think of it as the product of destructive interference between the 26th Amendment and the establishment of primaries in the 1970s.
Prop. 18 is worth a “yes” vote on merit of its fairness alone. But there is also a compelling case to be made that Prop. 18 would make for a healthier democracy. Research indicates that voting is habit-forming, and citizens who cast their first ballots in high school may be more likely to become lifetime voters.
What better time is there to start voting? Think about your last few months of high school. College application season was over, and senioritis may have been setting in. About to head off into the “real world,” and likely fresh off the heels of writing all those reflective essays, you probably spent more time than ever thinking about the future — what it might look like and what you wanted out of it. Reflective, independent and eligible to vote in the general election — it’s hard to imagine a better primary election voter.
The proposition’s opponents have suggested that we are too easily influenced by our teachers and parents to be allowed any more than the partial participation we are already granted. Clearly, the authors of that argument don’t spend much time around 17- or 18-year-olds, famously rebellious. And even if we were in the thrall of sinister civics teachers or naive online influencers, that doesn’t change the fact that those of us in question still have a right to vote in the general election a few months later. As long as we’re going to have some say, we may as well have a full say. And that brings us back to the issue of fairness.
No matter how old you are, remember that Prop. 18 is fundamentally about letting those of us who are 18 on Election Day have an equal say throughout the election cycle. Prop. 18 is about 18-year-olds as much as it is about joining the 18 other states that beat us to the punch.
Ryan Beam is a freshman studying mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley.