In January, I was invited to give a presentation about my work on ACA 4 to Human Rights Watch's Student Task Force. Although the event was held in Los Angeles, I was able to call in from across the state to share my story and take questions from an audience of about sixty civically engaged High School Juniors and Seniors.
THE STORY, I guess, starts on March 14th, 2018: one month to the day after the shooting in Parkland, Florida; the day of the March For Our Lives rally; a day of walkouts; and also my 16th birthday.
(March For Our Lives) was kind of a weird event at our school, because we had a walkout, but the walkout was organized and sanctioned by the school-- that sort of misses the point of a walkout, I think-- but one thing I remember liking was the voter registration table, where volunteers were registering and pre-registering students to vote.
I remember going over to fill out my (pre-registration) form-- 16th birthday, first day I was eligible-- and I realized that even though I was going to be old enough to vote in the general election, I was going to be about a week too young to vote in the primary election, in March. And I was a little annoyed at that, because uh… (I laugh)... I intend to vote for the Democratic candidate, but I’d like to have a little bit of a say in who the Democratic nominee is. I’m okay with being a rubber stamp on the nominee we get eventually. But I do want to have that say in the primary election.
I asked around, and I realized that a lot of my peers, a lot of other people in the Class of 2020, were in that same electoral gray zone, where we were born between March 3 and November 3, 2002. And so we’re going to be old enough-- we’re going to be 18-years-old for the duration of the next presidency-- but we don’t get a say in who the nominee is going to be.
I was a little miffed at that for a bit, but I didn’t see anything I could do about it. I complained to my friends, we complained to each other, and we went back to our schoolwork.
Fast-forward a few months: it’s the end of summer. I’d mostly forgotten about the primary, although it was still a lingering annoyance. I was interested-- I am interested in the intersection of science and public policy, and I wanted to get an up-close look at the environmental side of policymaking. I cold-called every one of my elected representatives asking if they would take on a high schooler as an intern during the Fall. The only office that ended up getting back to me was my local Assemblymember, Mark Stone. I interviewed there, and they offered me a three-month unpaid internship.
I was very fortunate that they did not hire me to be a coffee-getting intern or a paper filing intern... from day one, I was taking and making phone calls, I was writing correspondence and memos for the Assemblymember-- I’m not sure why they trusted me to do that from day one, but... (I laugh). Yeah, three months turned into six months, turned into nine months, and then finally, as summer rolled around again, they offered to start paying me, which was nice-- (applause, I laugh). Thank you! Umm, yeah, I started thinking about how over the course of that year I had seen people in my community, people I knew, or people who I could have just as easily known, who were faced with very real problems, and who had actually gotten solutions. People had gotten laws passed to address inadequacies they saw in their community.
I realized-- maybe I could take a page out of the book of all these engaged citizens. I could try to make the change I wanted to see in California. And I knew how. You know, writing to your Assemblymember is nice and all, but when you write to your Assemblymember, a lot of the time the person who ends up reading your letter is someone like me-- the unpaid intern. And I’ll write a response, I’ll take a note of your concerns and I’ll pass it on, but that’s not really the most impactful thing...
If you want to get in front of your local lawmaker, one of the best ways to do that is to get published in a California-centric media outlet. One of the things I would do every morning as an intern, was I would put together a list of the big headlines, but also the opinion articles, the think pieces for that day. Those would actually go on the Assemblymember’s desk, those would be seen.
I did some research, and I wrote an op-ed making the case for a change in the law that would allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if we’ll be 18 by election day. This is not some radical idea; it’s certainly not unconstitutional. Twenty states already allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if they'll be 18 by election day. Iowa, with its caucus-- you know they’ve got a lot of… interesting things happening there right now, in Iowa (laughter)-- but one thing they’ve got going for them, they allow 17-year-olds to caucus if they’ll be 18 by election day. New Hampshire, where they’re holding a primary right now, and election results are starting to trickle in as we speak, they don’t allow it-- but there is a constitutional amendment working its way through New Hampshire’s legislature that would make it so.
I submitted my op-ed to the Sacramento Bee-- I figured, Sacramento, that’s where the lawmakers are-- and it ended up being published. About a week later. I got a letter from one of the people who had read it: Speaker Pro Tempore Kevin Mullin, of the State Assembly. He had actually already introduced a constitutional amendment that would allow 17-year-olds in California to vote in primary elections if we’ll be 18 by election day. I got a very positive response from him, and I was invited to testify up in Sacramento in favor of the bill.
About a month after that, once the responses had died down, I realized: you know, I’ve learned a lot more about this issue in the past month. So I drafted another op-ed, and submitted that to the Los Angeles Times. It was accepted and published there on August 25th-- Sunday edition! That was very cool. We don’t get the Los Angeles Times up here, so I had to make some phone calls to get my hands on a physical copy of the paper-- had to see my case in print.
This time I got an even bigger response-- I later received a letter from the Governor, who-- I don’t know if he’s officially endorsed the amendment, but he was very supportive. In addition to that, I got a lot more… crazy, online hate. I think a lot of people, they see the headline, ‘let 17-year-olds vote in primaries if they’ll be 18 by election day,’ but all they hear is the part that says ‘let 17-year-olds vote,’ and they go (throws hands in air while making irritated sound)... are not supportive of that.
I also ended up contacting the New York Times, asking them if they would be interested in covering this or accepting an op-ed from me, and they said, ‘actually, we’d like to interview you for a piece on this-- this is an interesting story.’ So yeah, I was profiled for a piece on this, Assembly Constitutional Amendment 4, in the New York Times a couple months ago.
(Laughs) I guess that’s pretty much been it so far for me and ACA 4. It passed in the state assembly a few months ago during the first half of the legislative session, and right now it’s in a holding patter. If it passes through the state senate by June 25, then we’ll see it on the ballot in November, subject to approval by California voters.
Regardless of whether it passes this year, it’s too late to help me or the other quarter-million Californians in the class of 2020 who aren’t going to have a say in the primary but will in the general election. But any sophomores in the room, anyone in the class of 2022 and beyond, will hopefully have a say in the primaries going forward.
How did you know what to write in your first op-ed?
Yeah, it started out as-- pretty much, just me trying to figure out what exactly was going on for myself. What I wrote was not intended originally to be submitted as an op-ed to a newspaper, it was just sort of me getting my thoughts out, it was really important for me to understand what was going on, for myself, really.
When I finished, as I was reading through it, I thought, ‘You know, this actually-- I made this for myself, but it does a good job at explaining the issue and prescribing a solution, in a way that is similar to an op-ed article that I might read in the newspaper.
So I polished it up a little bit, and submitted it to the Bee. They actually ended up cutting, I think a third of it? All the jokes. I had a sense of humor in the first draft, and they did not appreciate that, I guess. That was a lesson learned for the LA Times draft.
How did you deal with the threat of not being taken seriously, as a young person?
I think a part of it was definitely having spent almost a year in the office of my State Assemblymember, being taken seriously by the civil servants around me. But I think part of it was also that… you know, I'm putting myself out there with this, but I'm also doing it from the floor of my bedroom. When you submit an op-ed to a newspaper the only people who are going to see it for sure are the editors of that newspaper.
I guess it was kind of difficult to think, at the time, ‘this is something that might be read by thousands of people,’ or with the Los Angeles Times, I'm not sure how many people… too many to think about. I don’t know-- a lot of it, I think, I was just insulated from the audience.
I think you asked how I knew I’d be taken seriously, as a young person. I think… I don’t know. I just tried to come off as adult. One of the main arguments in my op-ed, after all, was that for all intents and purposes, I am pretty much an adult, so take me seriously…. I’m sorry, I don’t know if I have a great answer, except that I was emboldened by the strength of my convictions, combined with the fact that I was very much insulated from my audience.
Other questions: still being transcribed.