Parties split over teen voting bill

Jim Sanders // Published June 9, 2008 in Sacramento Bee
Voting is as American as mom and apple pie – the more votes cast, the better for democracy, right?

Not necessarily.

Efforts to gradually increase California's pool of voters by targeting young teenagers are splitting the Capitol along party lines.

Democrats support, Republicans oppose.

"There's red apple pie and blue apple pie," quipped John J. Pitney, government professor at Claremont McKenna College.

The issue came to a head recently with Assembly Bill 1819, which would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister to vote, qualifying them automatically when they reach 18.

Students learn about U.S. government, history and economics in high school, so it's a perfect time to seek their commitment to active participation in elections, supporters say.

"It's an excellent complement to teaching the importance of citizen involvement," said Assemblyman Curren Price, the Inglewood Democrat who proposed the measure.

The bill passed the Assembly and was sent to the Senate last month on a party-line vote, 45-31, with no GOP support.

Assemblyman Anthony Adams, R-Hesperia, criticized the bill as a Democratic power play.

"For all their sweet-tongue talk about doing what's right for the country, that's baloney," Adams said.

"The truth is, when you're young you tend to think like a liberal," he said. "As you get older and wiser … you tend to become more conservative."

Registered Democrats already outnumber Republicans by 11 percentage points statewide – and Adams is not eager to expand that gap.

California does not compile voter registration records by age, gender or ethnicity.

But polls by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California have found that among voters 18 to 24, Democrats lead in voter registration with 40 percent, followed by independents, 31 percent; Republicans, 22 percent; and minor-party supporters, 7 percent.

Nearly half of California's public school students are Latino, a key Democratic constituency, so boosting high school registration also could increase the proportion of minority voters gradually – potentially affecting legislative priorities.

Assemblyman Roger Niello, R-Fair Oaks, said his opposition to AB 1819 has nothing to do with partisan politics. The state should excite teenagers about voting, not play a useless numbers game by amassing forms from disinterested students who can't cast ballots for two years, he said.

"(I want) to have a citizenry that is informed, engaged and interested," Niello said. "If you have that, they'll register to vote – and they'll vote."

GOP lawmakers raise other arguments against AB 1819 as well: Young teens are not mature enough to choose a political party; campus sign-ups could spark partisan recruiting; counties would incur record-keeping costs; and 18-year-olds who leave town for college would have to reregister anyway.

But Steven Hill of the nonpartisan New America Foundation said democracy is not well served by a status quo in which 7 million Californians are eligible to vote but don't bother to register.

Among the youngest adults, ages 18 to 24, slightly more than half have filed voter applications, the PPIC survey found.

"To get people to vote, the first thing is to get them on the rolls," Hill said. "If they're not on the rolls, they can't vote – end of story."

AB 1819 could pave the way for young teens to obtain preregistration forms on campus or when they apply for driver's licenses.

Tim Hodson, director of the Center for California Studies at California State University, Sacramento, said his impression in three decades of teaching government is that most 18-year-olds lean toward their parents' party.

"It's nonsense to think the majority of students are flaming liberals," he said.

Two states allow preregistration of 16-year-olds, and six states permit preregistration of 17-year-olds, according to an Assembly analysis of AB 1819.

Nationally, independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader has argued that the nation should go even further by permitting 16-year-olds to vote.

AB 1819 is not California's first voter-related proposal to split lawmakers along partisan lines of self-interest.

Democrats killed GOP legislation in January, for example, to require voters to show photo identification before casting ballots.

Republicans opposed and GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a Democratic bill last fall to allow election day registration of new citizens.

At Sacramento's McClatchy High School, all six students interviewed last week favored AB 1819 when told about it. But they split on whether many teenagers would preregister.

"For me, no, I'm not into that," said Devon McEwen, 16.

James Miro, 16, said he would sign up.

"I'm sure there would be at least a substantial number of kids that would, but overall, it may not be anything super-significant," he said.

Schwarzenegger has taken no position on AB 1819.