Real political discourse happens in primaries. And young voters should have a say

This is the two-hour voting line at Sac State

Hundreds of students stood in line to vote at Sacramento State’s vote center, spilling out the door of Modoc Hall and out onto the sidewalk.
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Hundreds of students stood in line to vote at Sacramento State’s vote center, spilling out the door of Modoc Hall and out onto the sidewalk.

I am very enthusiastic about voting.

I preregistered to vote the day I turned 16. I carry a stack of voter registration forms with me to school every day. Call it the naivete of youth, but very little is more exciting to me than the fact that I, along with the rest of my generation, will play a role in deciding the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. For many in Generation Z, it will be the first election we are eligible to cast a ballot in.

But what happens on Nov. 3 next year could also be the second election we are eligible to participate in – and, arguably, the less important one. Primaries are where the real discourse happens, where the real decisions are made.

Within my peer group, I have found that it is easier to get people excited about the intraparty contest between Sen. Kamala Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden – or Sen. Elizabeth Warren and entrepreneur Andrew Yang, or South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke, for that matter – than the inevitable Trump vs. a Democrat general election matchup.

California clearly knows the importance of having a voice in the primaries. It’s why in 2018 Gov. Jerry Brown approved a bill moving California’s primary from mid-June to early March.


While I’m all in favor of strengthening California’s say in the nominating contest, I’m more in favor of strengthening the say of Californians. This rescheduled primary date reduces the strength of my vote and those of my peers.

Nearly a quarter of a million Californians who will be eligible to vote in the general election in November won’t be able to vote in the primary election March 3, according to an estimate based on Census Bureau data. This has wide-reaching implications. My cohort will not have had the opportunity to consider all of the nuances that a 20-member pool of candidates has to offer, only to rubber stamp a decision that will have been made for us already by people whose stake in the outcome of the election will be no greater than our own. It’s hard to imagine a more effective way to disillusion young voters.

I am not advocating changing the rules to allow 17-year-olds to vote in a general election. The 26th amendment clearly states that the minimum age for voter eligibility in the United States is 18. But primary elections are never specified in the U.S. Constitution.

Primaries are the fairly-recent creation of modern political parties, which still maintain broad authority over their respective nominating contests. If they wanted to, the California Democratic or Republican parties could choose to completely disregard the apparent will of their primary voters and instead grant the nomination to whichever candidate has the most W’s in their name – or, more likely, whichever candidate is most appealing to the party’s elites. In fact, this is more or less how the nominees of major political parties were chosen up until the 1970s.

Ryan Beam.jpg

The point is, nothing prevents state parties from implementing rule changes which would allow 17-year-olds to vote in their primaries under

the condition that they be 18

by the time of the general election. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia allow

17-year-olds to vote

in both Republican and Democratic presidential primaries and caucuses, with just Democratic parties in four additional states allowing it as well. While in many cases the exception is eventually codified into law, this usually comes only after the change is implemented by a statewide political party.

As it stands today, nothing in the bylaws of either the California GOP or Democratic parties directly establishes an age minimum for voting in a primary election. In order for 17-year-olds to vote conditionally in presidential and congressional primaries, our state parties should assert their right to freedom of association, following the entirely constitutional examples set by Maryland, Illinois, Virginia and 20 other states including D.C. in the past several decades.

A change in primary voting age has the potential to drastically increase young voter turnout and voter retention. Unlike an 18- or 19-year-old, a 17-year-old typically lives as a dependent and has the luxury of time to figure out how to register and who to vote for, allowing young voters to get into the habit of civic engagement at an early age.

California is known for its just voting laws, so I am surprised that other states have beat us to the punch on this one.

Ryan Beam is a 17-year-old high school student in Santa Cruz County, California.

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