SACRAMENTO — A California state senator proposed Monday that teenagers be allowed to vote at age 14. Sort of.
Teens in California would be able to cast one-quarter of a vote at age 14 and half a vote at age 16 under a constitutional amendment proposed by Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara). The voting age is now 18.
Vasconcellos said the idea, a sort of electoral apprenticeship dubbed "Training Wheels for Citizenship," would infuse teenagers with the voting bug while boosting participation, which hit a new low in last week's presidential primary election.
Saying that today's Web-surfing, cellphone-toting teens are better informed and more mature than generations past, Vasconcellos argued that lowering the voting age is a matter of equality for a sector of society mostly brushed aside as politically irrelevant.
"To not let them have a say in what affects their lives seems to me to be not very typically American," declared Vasconcellos, flanked at a Capitol news conference by a couple dozen teenage supporters.
But the proposal, which would need a two-thirds vote in both houses of the Legislature before it could appear on the ballot as a constitutional amendment, was met by immediate ridicule from Republicans.
"To waste taxpayer money having children cast votes would be ridiculous at any time, but in the face of our current fiscal crisis, it is an obscenity," said state Sen. Ross Johnson (R-Irvine).
The idea also raised eyebrows among public policy experts.
Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said the proposal reminded him of the provision in the first U.S. Constitution that counted slaves as three-fifths of a person. "So you're a quarter person? Or a half? Either you give the vote to them or you don't. I just wonder how big an outcry there is for this."
Though a youth vote movement is beginning to bubble in the United States, efforts to lower the voting age have been underway for years in several other countries, including Great Britain. Parts of Germany and Austria have dropped the voting age to 16. Israel lowered its threshold to 17.
"We're confident that lowering the vote age is good for democracy," said Alex Folkes of a British organization pushing for a lower voting age.
"Why are the needs of the most vulnerable -- the children -- not being given weight in electoral politics?"
The fledgling U.S. effort has been championed by the National Youth Rights Assn., a Maryland nonprofit group that also backs lowering the drinking age and slashing teen curfews. Alex Koroknay-Palicz, the group's president, said the California proposal, which would apply only to state elections, "will inspire youth across the country."
Student supporters said their lives often run aground on weighty issues, from gangs and crime to more prosaic matters over school funding. But they don't have an election voice in any of it.
"If we could vote, politicians would see us as votes, not just kids, and they would take our issues seriously," said Robert Reynolds, 17, a Berkeley High School student. Mark Murphy, 17, of Santa Rosa added that the nation's refusal to let high school students vote "sends an indirect message" that their opinions don't count for much.
Andrew Steinberg, 17, a Beverly Hills High student, acknowledged that the proposal seemed radical, but is a matter of fairness. "This is akin to taxation without representation, and it has got to stop," Steinberg said.