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Meet the CA Assemblywoman behind an effort to lower the CA voting age

Earlier this year I had the privilege of sitting down with Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez to discuss her push to amend the California state constitution to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in school board and community college board elections. Though the measure ultimately did not pass, Gonzalez efforts along with a network of student activist across the state are setting the stage for a new discussion on voting rights. In the wake of a presidential election cycle which saw an enormous disconnect between older and younger voters, this issue could not be more relevant.


Andrew: So, first of all, I'd love to get some idea of what the inspiration was for you to support the effort to lower the voting age in California to 16. I know that you've spoken in the past about your daughter and how she has had some influence on you but I'd love to hear it straight from the horses' mouth.

Assemblywoman Gonzalez: When my daughter was 15 I think, I wasn't in this job yet so March 16th, 2012, she led a walk out in her school. She organized some other students to basically try to, have a discussion with the school board about how upset they were about which teachers were getting pink slips, why, and what they were going to lose as far as their school. Basically she felt like that while they were testifying at the school board meetings, the school board members just saw them as cute kids. They were not being taken seriously, and they did not feel like they had a true voice. My daughter had been involved in politics for a long time, so she knew that part of the reason is that 15-year-olds can’t vote.

So she led a walk-out, and 250 kids joined her. They did a great job; they got the attention they were looking for from the school board. They woke up, and the protest sparked a bunch of other walk-outs from students in San Diego.

But then she got in trouble. She got in a lot of trouble, and I spent a lot of time trying to help fix how much trouble she was in. And I asked her, "Why that?" And she said, "Look, this is the only way we can get attention."

She gets that school board members, even those that care a lot about kids, their most important constituency are those who can vote.

So then I became an Assemblywoman, and that issue of 16 year-olds being able to vote has always been on my mind.

And then we began the Local Control Funding Formula Funding in CA which means in part that money goes to a local school district who gets additional money if you have a preponderance of foster kids, low-income kids, or kids who are English learners.

Then the concept is you send those school districts more money, and the districts set up local committees and decide how to distribute the money. Now one of the interesting things is that kids who are in foster care and kids who are English language learners don't even necessarily have parents who can vote to adequately provide a voice for them in the process.

In my district, for example, we have a lot of immigrants

The Governor's reasoning with this funding is that the school boards will either do the right thing or get voted out. It's supposed to have this built-in accountability feature. And that's great in theory but only if everybody could vote.

So I thought, this is just another reason why it makes sense to have younger voters who are directly affected by these decisions be able to have a say in it.

So obviously school funding, all the things that a school board deals with, it makes sense for 16 and 17-year-olds to have a say in it. And community college boards as well because again, that's an elected position that we can affect.

So we started to get serious about it and said, "What do we have to do?" Granted it's constitutional change, it's huge, it's heavy lifting. Takes 2/3 getting it through in the House and the Senate but my team and I said we just have to get this discussion started. For a few reasons.

Number one, it's easier to register people at 16 than 18. They are more likely to be in one place, not between locations and addresses or thinking about everything you have to think about when you are on the verge of graduating high school and headed to college.

They are actually in a civics class a lot of the time at 16.

It allows teachers to add it into the curriculum in a way that makes sense and has a direct tie.

And understand that if they first time you vote you are voting on things that totally affect your life and you get that, you're more likely to establish a pattern of voting and once you start you are more likely to continue voting after turning 18.

Last year I also did the auto registration where you go to the DMV and get automatically registered to vote. That will come into effect in the next few years. But one of the problems with that is alto of times you go to the DMV right when you turn 16, and you can't get auto-registered then because you aren't qualified to be a voter.

So with all of those things combined we were like "hey, is this not the perfect time to start talking about lowering the voting age for these specific elections?"

I value young folks and the discussions and ideas that they have. Just like my daughter.

Young people come up with really good policy suggestions because they are living it. And so to me it makes sense to allow those who want to register and vote have that chance.

Andrew: What kind of response have you gotten from young people?

Assemblywoman Gonzalez: Overwhelmingly young people who love it. But that's only if they care. Those who don't care, aren't going to vote anyway but those who have an opinion overwhelmingly are supportive about it, and those are the people who vote. Those who care.

Andrew: And I know you have been working with some high school students to actually help champion the proposals through the assembly. What does that process look like? Have young people been more engaged in the process in general?

Assemblywoman Gonzalez: We are just starting this process. Some of the students came to us from Berkeley where they also had this idea. So that was neat.

This is, unfortunately, going to be a longer process than just this year.

Andrew: And I mean that's the big secret behind how laws are passed right? Less like School House Rock and more like House of Cards?

Assemblywoman Gonzalez: Exactly, but I still believe in School House Rock.

We do have a junior legislator program this summer where we will bring folks from my district to teach them about the legislative process. What we are trying to do is create a group of activists where the young people are the people pushing his bill. While I have reasons and beliefs behind championing this, we need young people to prove to those folks who don't believe that they are smart enough, or mature enough that they are. They have to be the ones to demand it and demand it for the right reasons. So we are doing a lot of outreach and organizing mostly hoping that we can train the leaders to lead the movement.

Andrew: Can you talk to me a little bit about the opposition that you might have already been hearing about the bill and the opposition you expect to hear down the road?

Assemblywoman Gonzalez: I always think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we all base our opinions on what 16-year-olds are like on maybe our children or other people's children or other children they've seen and think that all children are too immature for this. But quite frankly, science tells us that a 16-year-old brain can make the same kind of cold, rational decisions when they have a lot of information. This is different from an impulse decision which 16-year-olds typically aren't at the same developmental capacity as adults.

16-year-olds can process information ahead, we expect them to gather and process information for all the tests we force them to take in school. Should they vote be any different?

This is different from something like driving.

What I always say to people who say well, "I couldn't have voted at 16," is well you might not have been ready to vote at 22 either but you had the right to. So yes, all kids are different. Some will not be mature enough; some will not be interested, and they probably won't vote. But there is a large number, the vast majority even, can and should be able to make this decision.

Andrew: Do you think some of these school board members might be nervous about the idea of being held accountable to this new demographic?

Assemblywoman Gonzalez: It think there are some who would be excited, and there are some who would be nervous. My school board is supportive; they want to pass a resolution in support which I think is cool but yeah sure. I mean my dream is, we pass this, a school board member will be forced to go to the high and talk to even. That's great. My whole perception on voting one education bills comes not from my expertise as an attorney or my expertise as a former labor leader...most of it comes from the fact that I'm a parent and my kids show me what they encounter in our public schools.

For example, my son calls me over one day to show me what the Common Core looks like and I ask some of the folks up here in Sacramento, "Have you even ever looked at the Common Core?" It's tough!

This doesn't mean it's not the right policy, but it means we have to give folks time to catch up.

I think that the more the elected officials speak to young people the better they will be at their job.

Andrew: Can you talk more about the specific nature of the opposition? I know it's so early in the process.

Assemblywoman Gonzalez: It's never been very specific. I think it's rude. It's just typically knee jerk reaction like "You've got to be kidding." Others I have heard relating the smoking age which is 21 in California to the prospect of lowering the voting age. How can you justify raising the smoking age but lower the voting age?

My thought process on that is, well why don't we just eliminate smoking altogether. You want to raise it to 25 heck I'd vote for that too.

Andrew: Final question: If the proposal were to be to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote not only in school board elections but also Assemblypersons would you support that?

Assemblywoman Gonzalez: Hell yeah. I would do well with the 16 and 17-year-olds. I think that's my demographic. I was always the cool mom. Of course!

Andrew Brennen is a student and civic entrepreneur at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. You can learn more about his work here.

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