At just 17 years old, Nelson Mu has extensive knowledge about politics. The Monta Vista High School senior can tell you which candidates and which propositions will be on the Nov. 3 ballot and how each one will affect his hometown of Cupertino.
The only thing he can’t do is vote in the upcoming elections.
But if California Proposition 18 passes, the state’s constitution will be amended to allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary and special elections, if they will turn 18 by the next general election.
Currently, voters must be 18 years old in order to vote in any election, and be either 16 or 17 years old to preregister.
Mu said he supports the proposition and believes there isn’t a difference in maturity or intelligence levels between 17- and 18-year-olds. He said he knows plenty of high schoolers who are capable of voting.
“If I had it my way, 17-year-olds (in California) would vote,” Mu said. “They are sufficiently mature to make their own informed political decisions about what’s going on in our country.”
At least 18 states including Washington, D.C., allow 17-year-olds this kind of voter privilege, and Prop. 18 is supported by Gov. Gavin Newsom and Secretary of State Alex Padilla, along with the California Association of Student Councils, California League of Conservative Voters, and the University of California Student Association (UCSA).
Vincent Rasso, UCSA chair and a political science senior at UC Riverside, said he wishes he had the opportunity to vote in the 2016 elections. Rasso was a senior at Grand Terrace High School near Riverside at the time and five months away from turning 18 by the voting deadline.
“I was just thinking back to the impact [not being able to vote] had on me and realized I just want that [opportunity] for other folks,” Rasso said. “17-year-olds are witnessing a lot of changes to the government, but aren’t able to engage in them.”
The UCSA is a coalition of students and student governments that advocates for improving the quality of the UC education system and student life. Rasso said the group’s board members support Prop. 18 because they wanted to increase civic engagement among potential and current UC students.
According to research conducted by the nonpartisan Center for Inclusive Democracy (CID), in the 2016 primary election in California, youth voters made up 17.1% of the population eligible to vote, but only 6 actually voted in the election.Youth voters are defined as 18-to-24 year olds.
Rasso said that exposing teenagers to the voting process at an early age is one way to encourage youth voter turnout rates.
“The turn out for young voters is disappointing,” Rasso said. “That’s why it’s so important to drive that narrative of, ‘Youth votes are monumental.’”
Among those opposing Prop. 18 are the Election Integrity Project, a nonpartisan voter education and advocacy group with offices in various states, as well as the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and Larry Sand, a retired teacher.
Sand, who has more than 28 years’ experience teaching elementary and middle schoolers in both New York and California, said he opposes the proposition because he doesn’t believe 17-year-olds are mature enough to make informed political decisions.
He said that 17-year-olds don’t have sufficient experience with working or with living independently. They aren’t always able to see or understand the consequences voting for a certain proposition or candidate will have on them and their communities he believes.
“I was that age many years ago, and in retrospect, (neither) I nor my friends were mature enough to vote,” Sand said, “One needs a lot of real world experience.”
The nonpartisan Election Integrity Project, whose California wing is located in Santa Clarita, also believes 17-year-olds are too young to vote.
Ruth Weiss, a co-founder of the project, wrote a commentary against the proposition in the San Diego Tribute on Sept. 19, saying: “Intelligent and responsible voters need a fully developed ability to reason, analyze and make non-emotional choices based on rational thought and cause-and-effect comprehension.”
Weiss declined to be interviewed for this story, but said the editorial “expresses (the project’s) point of view pretty thoroughly.”
Taking issue with the project, Suraj Gangaram, also a senior at Monta Vista, said being an “adult” is just a label. There is nothing special about turning 18, he said, and people can’t assume all teenagers act and think the same way.
“There are alot of students who are capable of making proper decisions even though they’re not 18,” Gangaram said. “(Age) doesn’t mean much when it comes to how much knowledge and how much experience you have.”
Like Gangaram, Mu said that a person’s age is no longer an important factor when it comes to voting. Everyone is affected by the outcome of an election, and should be involved in the voting process as much as possible.
Even though Mu can’t vote, he said he will continue to educate himself on local and state politics. He encourages all young voters to do the same.
“We [17-year-olds] have a voice even if we can’t vote,” Mu said. “It’s more crucial than ever for us to do our civic duty and become informed citizens … this is the future of our lives we’re talking about.”
Finally, there are those who support the lower voting age but think it’s not a cure-all for youth apathy.
Iman Malik, also a senior at Monta Vista, said that while she supports Prop. 18, lowering the age requirement will not help increase civic engagement among youth voters.
Malik said that the more people are informed about political issues, the more engaged they will be in the voting process; however, not everyone is willing to be informed and educated about politics. Malik said she has friends that are “blissfully” unaware of the voting process and political climate. She said simply lowering the voting age won’t motivate her 17-year-old friends to vote.
“Decreasing the voting age is like a patch-up solution to a much bigger problem (with voter engagement),” Malik said.