On the sidewalk outside Toy Mandala, a local hangout where teens buy Yu-gi-oh cards and then face off for unofficial competition, the conversation turns from fantasy card games to ... politics.
"I would so vote if I could. It would be cool," says Tommy Arbor, wearing a beak cap sideways to shield his eyes from afternoon sun.
"I would be so clueless," says his opponent, who calls himself simply "Shags" and wears a SpongeBob SquarePants T-shirt. "School bonds, budgets, taxes ... what do I know about that stuff?"
The street-side back-and-forth typifies a new debate that is raising both hope and eyebrows among teens, parents, politicians, and activists from here to Washington and beyond US borders. The question: Should kids as young as 14 be able to vote?
Four California legislators proposed just that in the Golden State this week, with the twist that 14- and 15-year-olds would get only a one-quarter vote and 16- and 17-year-olds would get one-half.
The idea is being touted as a kind of electoral apprenticeship known as "Training Wheels for Citizenship," and is designed to both prod and inspire youth to participate in democracy on a kind of sliding scale - helping them to raise consciousness and take responsibility in small bites.
"We have apprenticeships in medicine, journalism, plumbing, and car driving, why not politics?" asks state Sen. John Vasconcellos (D), who wants to change the California constitution to expand youth voting. "Kids today have far more exposure to the world via media, Internet, and cellphones," he says. And he sees today's teens as ready to take more responsibility for public policies that, after all, affect them just as much as others.
The idea parallels a burgeoning youth-vote movement both in the US and abroad. Some American states now allow voting at 17, Britain has a formal proposal in Parliament this week to lower the age the age to 16, and Germany is considering giving families as many votes as there are family members. Parts of Germany and Austria allow voting at 16, and Israel has lowered its voting age to 17.
But while Vasconcellos's idea is being taken seriously - at least as a starting point for serious debate about lowering the voting age - it is being taken to task even by supporters for parsing single votes into fractions.
"The idea of involving 14- to 17-year-olds in the political process is a good one, but the idea of treating them as fractions needs to be examined in the light of America's nasty history," says Roger Robins, a political scientist and historian at Marymount University. "We once counted slaves as three-fifths of a person, and this idea sort of interacts with that ghost in our national subconscious."
Still, the idea is also getting support from national youth-rights groups. "Youth feel alienated from politics and politicians, and this will help to include them in the process," says Alex Koroknay-Palics, president of the National Youth Rights Association, a national group in Washington, D.C., that also backs lowering the drinking age and curtailing teen curfews.
"We are excited that there is a serious discussion [about] getting younger people more civically and politically involved," adds David Smith, executive director of Mobilizing America's Youth. "But ... it sets a dangerous precedent to say that someone is not worthy of a whole vote."
This is not the first time Vasconcellos has raised a controversial - some might say wacky - idea. He famously campaigned to start a California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem in the late 1980s and was an early advocate for legalizing medical marijuana. His latest pitch (made with cosponsors Sen. Edward Vincent and Assemblywomen Carol Liu and Sarah Reyes) is already being lambasted on talk radio. Mothers and teachers, especially, are calling in to say the move would take away childhood and would open the door to redefining consent and the conferring of adult responsibility in contexts such as laws governing sex crimes. Other detractors say it would jeopardize already fragile relationships between youth and parent-guardians while still others say teens that age are simply not ready.
"This is one of those ideas that comes out of California that makes the rest of the country feel they are kooky," says Morris Reid, a former Clinton official and managing director of Westin Rinehart, a Washington consulting firm. "Kids that age are still trying to figure out who they are. We shouldn't expect them to be up to speed on all these issues. This is a nonstarter."
Mr. Reid and others say that if participation in Democracy needs to be bolstered, legislators should focus on other ways to improve participation, from creating a national holiday for voting to easing same-day registration laws. The proposal would need a two-thirds vote in both houses before it could appear on the ballot as a constitutional amendment.
"I believe this is a misguided attempt to boost participation," says Katherine Tate, a political scientist at the University of California in Irvine. "We need to remember that voting is an adult privilege and that adults are responsible for their children. And children cannot substitute for absent adults."
That doesn't make the idea any less appealing to Andrew Steinberg. The Beverly Hills High School 17-year-old told the Associated Press that government decisions daily color the lives of young people who can't vote. "This is akin to taxation without representation," he says. "It has got to stop."