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PD Editorial: One yes, one on voting measures

Among the decisions awaiting California voters in the Nov. 3 election is whether more people should be allowed to cast ballots.

Proposition 17 would allow parolees to register and vote.

Proposition 18 would allow 17-year-olds who turn 18 on or before Election Day to vote in primaries and special elections.

In this time of growing concern about voter suppression around the country, it’s refreshing to think about promoting participation in our democracy.

Here in Sonoma County, voting is a habit. Election Day turnout usually is among the highest in the state, topping 86% of registered voters in the presidential election four years ago and an astonishing 93.4% in 2008. Only Marin County boasted larger percentages.

High voter participation rates are a good measure of a healthy democracy, and we oppose artificial obstacles to voting, such as photo ID laws crafted to disadvantage poor and minority voters and permanent denial of voting rights to anyone convicted of a felony.

However, we have reservations about the proposal to lower the voting age.

More than a dozen state allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if they turn 18 prior to the general election. There is a logical nexus: general election candidates are nominated in the primary.

Proposition 18 goes further. It also would allow 17-year-olds to vote in special elections, which frequently are called by small school districts for bonds and parcel taxes.

Supporters argue that 17-year-olds are nearly adults, and allowing them to vote early could start a lifelong habit. Perhaps. But California allows too many low-turnout special elections on fiscal issues.

We doubt that even the most politically engaged 17-year-old is fully prepared to weigh parcel taxes and bond acts. Even fewer would be subject to the taxes they would be voting on.

Moreover, society is moving in the opposite direction on several fronts, among them provisional driver’s licenses for teens, banning the sale of tobacco products to anyone under 21 and returning many criminal cases to juvenile court in recognition that adolescents often lack the ability to make mature judgments.

California allows teens as young as 16 to preregister to vote, and we might be persuaded to go along with 17-year-olds voting in primaries. But Proposition 18 is a step too far.

There’s a better argument for Proposition 17.

In California, neither convicted felons serving prison sentences nor parolees are allowed to vote. Convicted felons on probation and people serving misdemeanor sentences are allowed to vote, as is anyone in custody awaiting trial.

Under Proposition 17, inmates serving felony sentences would still be barred from voting, but once paroled — a transitional period of supervised release, similar to probation — their franchise would be restored.

The impact on the electorate would be marginal. There are about 50,000 people on parole in California, compared to about 21 million registered voters.

Parolees work and pay taxes and, as supporters note, a Florida study concluded that parolees whose voting rights were restored were less likely to return to prison. Everyone benefits from reducing recidivism.

Moreover, restoration of voting rights is consistent with voter decisions to shorten sentences for drug possession and many other nonviolent crimes and to offer a chance at early parole to inmates who work or study in prison.

The Press Democrat recommends a yes vote on Proposition 17 and a no vote on Proposition 18.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com.

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