Harsh Truths: What the Failure of Proposition 18 Says About CA Voters and CA Ballots

In the November 2020 Elections, California voters had the opportunity to vote on 10 propositions. While many ballots were considered controversial and garnered mass media attention, there was little partisan friction over Proposition 18, which would have expanded voting rights to 17-year olds in primary and special elections. The result of this proposition reveals harsh truths about the conditions of California ballot language and Californian civic engagement. Let’s dive in.

Image Source: ABC7 Los Angeles

Simple- one of the best words to describe Proposition 18. I was very shocked to see it fail on Election Night, which transitioned to frustration as I realized the implications of the failure of this key ballot measure. As a proposition that was dedicated to giving 17-year olds the right to vote in primary and special elections, Proposition 18 would be a way to ensure increased youth civic engagement. Better yet, it was not formulated in a way that would be deemed partisan. So, why did 56% of California voters shut it down?

Before diving into why it failed, we need to view the ballot language for Prop 18 that California voters saw in 2020.

Amends California Constitution to Permit 17-Year-Olds to Vote in Primary and Special Elections if They Will Turn 18 by the Next General Election and be Otherwise Eligible to Vote. Legislative Constitutional Amendment

The fiscal statement which is also seen on the ballot language was as follows:

Increased costs for counties, likely between several hundreds of thousands of dollars and $1 million every two years, to send and process voting materials to eligible registered 17-year-olds.

Increased one-time costs to the state in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to update existing voter registration systems.

If you are still confused by what Prop 18 means, it very simply means this: if a 17-year old is eligible to vote for the upcoming GENERAL election, they can be allowed to vote in the PRIMARY elections that are hosted prior to the general election. In the case of a special election that occurs before the GENERAL election, 17-year olds would be eligible to participate.

To understand what that explanation means, you have to understand what each type of election means. As a note, all three types of these elections can occur at the local, state, and national levels of government. In a primary election, you vote for your favorite candidate WITHIN YOUR PARTY LINES. Meaning, when Democrats were running to the polls in March 2020 to vote for Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders, that was a Primary Election. A general election, on the other hand, is what we just saw in November 2020: multi-party candidates are rivaling for the seat, and this time, whoever wins the election wins the seat. So, when we saw long-time Republican Susan Collins upset Democrat Sara Gideon in the key state of Maine, that would be an example of a General Election. In very rare cases, we also witness a special election, which could either be caused due to a forced or voluntary vacancy, or in the case of California voters, a recall election (we saw this in 2003, when California Governor Gray Davis was recalled and replaced by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger).

With the types of election now being clear, why should this proposition have been enacted? Imagine you were a 17-year old Bernie Sanders supporter who was eligible to vote in this year’s Presidential election, meaning you would be 18-years old by then. With the current set-up, you have no say in selecting the Democratic presidential nominee. Does it make sense that all other voters had the option to take part in the Primary elections and you only have the opportunity to vote for a pre-selected candidate that you had no input in choosing? No other group of voters experiences this systemic disenfranchisement.

There is no partisan intentions with this legislation- it was strictly intended to remove disenfranchisement of a group of voters that has typically been disengaged. California is not a unique state in asking for this- in fact, 19 states have already approved similar legislation since as early as the 1980s. This is by no means a progressive legislation- it has been in practice for YEARS. Now that we understand this ballot measure, what were some of the reasons behind it’s downfall?

Reason #1: propaganda. This legislation has been greatly debated in the California legislature- six times precisely. As CalMatters notes, this was the first time that such legislation reached voters. There were two main organizations that silently opposed Proposition 18: Election Integrity Project California and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. Here is some of their outdated, fear-mongering rhetoric that they submitted for the California Secretary of State’s Official Voter Information Guide:

“Many tax increases and bond debt measures are decided on primary and special election ballots. That’s why only adults should vote.” — Jon Coupal, President, Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association

These next few statements are from Election Integrity Project California.

“California law reflects the scientific evidence that age-related brain development is connected to the ability to reason, analyze and comprehend cause-and-effect. The agreed-upon age of reason, both statewide and nationally, is 18”

“Voters deserve to hear all sides of an issue to make an informed choice. Most 17-year-olds are still in high school, dependent on teachers for grades and important recommendation letters vital to their future. They are a captive audience five days a week, with a strong incentive to do whatever teachers and counselors recommend.”

“Voting is a serious responsibility…Important decisions must be made by voters who are legally adults, not by high school minors.”

The first quote is significant, because it plays on the misunderstanding that many voters assumed from reading the ballot language: it emphasizes the idea of ALL 17-year olds voting. In reality, this proposition merely gives ELIGIBLE 17-year olds the right to vote in primaries. With the latter quotes, we see this rhetoric of diminished intellect that is just unsubstantiated. 17-year olds can: hold jobs and thus pay taxes, enlist in the military (ironic when considering the above rhetoric), and attend college. It is clear that this rhetoric had one job which it succeeded at: fear-mongering the individuals who are not civically engaged or who misunderstood the ballot language.

Reason #2: misleading ballot language. This has been something that many organizations, whether in favor or in opposition of certain propositions, have complained about in the past, and those complaints can apply to Prop 18 as well. One of the most misleading aspects of this ballot language is the fiscal statement, for it fails to consider the great indirect costs that come with low civic engagement. The time and fiscal investment of engaging historically low-turnout communities far outshines the investments listed above. It was completely framed to show the expense it would place on the State, rather than displaying how the investment would off-set the time poverty and fiscal costs that grassroots organizers and non-profit organizations experienced from their civic engagement efforts. Also, in the main ballot language, the phrase which stands out is “permit 17-year olds to vote,” which encourages a misleading look at the ballot measure.

Reason #3: the 56% is part of a majority that continues to be disengaged from politics and civic engagement. With this being one of the most nonpartisan ballot measures available for voters, with the California Republican Party NOT being a registered opponent despite the California Democratic Party openly endorsing Proposition 18, I knew that this measure would be a key indicator of the educated decisions which voters would be making. Unlike what Election Integrity Project California wrote, failure to make an informed choice is not a side-effect of young age. It is a side-effect of complacency.

Reason #4: confusion of political terms. I am confident that many voters did not understand the differences between primary, general, and special elections, and these terms were KEY to understanding the ballot language put forward by the California Secretary of State. This confusion wouldn’t exist… if Governor Newsom would put personal qualms aside and NOT VETO RANKED-CHOICE VOTING the next time it is approved by California legislators. The reason is that, in RCV, you have one election only: not only does this resolve the concerns of “fiscal impact,” but it also removes the need for this sort of legislation, and for Governor Newsom to endorse such legislation. Learn more about ranked-choice voting in my previous article.

Now that I’ve greatly criticized Proposition 18, I am sure you are wondering: what’s the solution? Of course, ranked-choice voting in California is the long-term solution, but what’s the short-term solution? My answer: there are four actions we can take as engaged citizens. One: create a stronger movement to increase awareness of this issue and get it approved as a California ballot measure in 2022. Two: hold our peers accountable for PROPERLY informing themselves about the California Propositions WELL AHEAD OF TIME. I knew far too many people who were trying to learn about the ballots as they were voting for them. This is a dangerous system that promotes superficial analysis, as we can see with the failure of Prop 18. Three: start using stronger rhetoric when discussing this issue with fellow citizens. This is not about providing extra privileges, or offering unwarranted access to vote: this about resolving a systemic disenfranchisement that can also off-set the great investments which have been made to encourage youth civic engagement. Four: push for greater civic engagement curriculum in high schools. There needs to be a space for students to learn about accessing nonpartisan information, registering to vote, completing the Census, and avoiding mistakes that could invalidate your vote. These ground-up investments can promote youth civic engagement that could also influence civic engagement within their communities. After all, youth are the change-makers.

It’s time for California voters and California ballot language to do better. I hope to see an improved outlook for nonpartisan ballot measures in the future.

Alisha Saxena is a senior at the University of California, San Diego majoring in Political Science-Public Law and minoring in African American Studies. She is currently interning with RepresentWomen, a group that seeks to develop solutions to promote gender parity in politics. She looks forward to continuing to write about politics, civic engagement, representation in government, and more!

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