Ella Yitzhaki, the Jewish politico who is trying to make 17-year-olds eligible to vote in California primaries. (Gabriel Greschler)
Ella Yitzhaki, the Jewish politico who is trying to make 17-year-olds eligible to vote in California primaries. (Gabriel Greschler)

Should 17-year-olds vote in the California primary? This one says yes.

Ella Yitzhaki loves politics. Like, really loves politics.

At 17 years old, she’s in the middle of reading Robert F. Kennedy’s 1967 book “To Seek a Newer World.” She recently committed to Cornell University to study government. And she eventually wants to be a legislative aide, a speechwriter or a campaign strategist because she finds “strength in the background of politics.”

But the senior at Lowell High School in San Francisco has more than just aspirations: The young politico is an instrumental figure in an effort to pass a voter eligibility law in November. The bill, ACA-4, would allow 17-year-olds to vote in California’s primary, as long as they will turn 18 by the general election. (ACA stands for Assembly Constitutional Amendment.)

“What we are lacking right now is a true primary,” said Yitzhaki. “People are essentially getting half a vote through the current situation.”

The idea is not novel. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia already have some variation of the law on the books. And it’s a mix of blue and red states: Mississippi and Washington State are both members of the club.

Yitzhaki has wanted to pass such a law since the 2016 election.

“I was spending all my time talking about politics,” Yitzhaki recalls. She remembers researching all the major arguments about immigration, climate change and health care. But she wanted to do more than just talk about those issues.

“I was like, this is boring,” she said. “I want to vote.”

Even though she knew she would be 18 by the 2020 election, she realized she wouldn’t be eligible for California’s new March 3 primary; the state’s primary used to be in June.

After spending close to a year researching voter eligibility laws, she was put in touch with state Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, who represents the 22nd district south of San Francisco.

After attending town halls and meeting with Mullin’s team, Yitzhaki was asked to testify in support of ACA-4 in front of an Assembly election committee last June.

“That was a really wonderful experience,” Yitzhaki said. “It was fascinating to see what politics really are.”

The bill got through that committee, and two months later passed the California Assembly. It now must pass through a Senate committee and then the full chamber before ending up on the November ballot. It will require a two-thirds majority vote to become a constitutional amendment.

Yitzhaki’s efforts have garnered national media attention. In September 2019, the New York Times featured her in its California Today newsletter. A month later, the San Francisco Chronicle featured her on one of their podcasts.

ACA-4 is a powerful, non-partisan way for more young people to get involved in politics, Yitzhaki argues. “In order to continue the democracy we have,” she said, “there has to be a constant cycle of participation.”

She referenced a 2011 study that found people’s voting patterns and levels of civic engagement are stronger when they vote early in life.

Opposition to the bill doesn’t make sense to her, she said. For starters, some have argued to her that 17-year-olds aren’t old enough to make political decisions. She counters with the fact that this group is only a couple of months away from being 18. Politicians, she said, have told her that since 17-year-olds aren’t homebuyers or taxpayers, they shouldn’t be allowed to vote.

“It’s so wrong,” Yitzhaki said. “One’s opinion shouldn’t be delegitimized because they don’t necessarily know what buying a home is like.”

And, yes, 17-year-olds do pay taxes, Yitzhaki quickly added, via sales tax.

“It’s always inspiring to see young people like Ella so passionate about civic engagement,” Mullin said in a statement. “As the author of ACA-4, I am very appreciative of her advocacy and her participation in the legislative process providing compelling testimony during committee hearings. Her remarks have demonstrated that 17-year-olds are aware of the issues and ready to vote in primary elections.”

“I think it’s great,” added Lee Hsu, a former board member of San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency and a family friend who has helped connect Yitzhaki with local politicians. “Her generation has so much at stake in the future. She is clearly very bright. She is interested.”

Yitzhaki sees Jewish values as a motivating factor in her work.

She described Judaism as a “shared consciousness,” something that encourages her to be kind to everyone she meets. Being a Jew also makes her a major skeptic, she said. “My parents are annoyed, but I constantly question everything,” Yitzhaki joked. Yitzhaki’s family attends Or Shalom Jewish Community in San Francisco.

In addition to her ACA-4 efforts, Yitzhaki is a high school elections ambassador for San Francisco County’s Department of Elections.

“I sometimes have to remind myself that she is not an adult,” said Yitzhaki’s mom, Laura Bloch.

Bloch added that she used to be the one teaching her daughter the ins and outs of politics. But now it’s the other way around.

“It’s a little embarrassing, but it is the truth,” Bloch said. “It’s been remarkable to witness this.”

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler is a staff writer at J. You can reach him at gabriel@jweekly.com and follow him on Twitter @ggreschler.