SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in school board races — if permitted by their local school board — won the support a House committee on Wednesday.
The Utah Legislature's House Political Subdivisions Committee voted 6-4 to forward the bill to the House for further consideration.
HB338, sponsored by Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, creates a pathway for local school boards to allow teens ages 16 and 17 to vote in their board races. It does not set a statewide requirement but would allow each school board to decide if students can vote in their local races.
The bill was the brainchild of West High School student Arundhati Oommen, who serves on the Salt Lake City Board of Education as a student member.
Oommen said local control is of paramount concern.
"Utah's not a one-size-fits-all state. We demand creativity when it comes to legislation, so that means that maybe Granite School Board doesn't want to see this bill enacted right now. Maybe they want it to happen in 30 years down the line, or maybe never and that's OK," she said.
"The great thing about this bill is that it gives respect to local school boards, which is something that I want students to learn as well."
Oommen said the bill gives students a say in local school board races while they are still in high school, a time when school board decisions impact many aspects of their education and lives.
"If a school board decides that school is going to start at 6:30 a.m., it's not the voters who are going to be waking up at five in the morning, it's us," she said.
Allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local school board races would help raise a generation of informed voters, she said.
"Students are more in tune with their educational needs than anybody else. We're the ones subjected to the role of the state school boards and by the time we're 18 and allowed to vote, we are no longer part of the education system," she said.
A high school junior, Oommen shared with the committee a bit about her background. "My mom works for the U.S. Department of Defense and my dad works for a dairy company. I was born here 16 years ago, four years after my parents immigrated here from South India. I am a child of the American dream and here I am trying to extend that privilege to others," she said.
Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, said if not for his early exposure to the political process, he likely would not be a state lawmaker. Teuscher said he is concerned about younger generations' apathy toward politics and something needs to be done.
"I don't know what the answer is, quite honestly. As I listen to this debate here today, I don't think this is the worst idea in the world. To be able to get some students involved and give them opportunities like I had when I was younger, to get into the system to register to vote, to get a ballot, to know how to fill it out and hopefully as we've heard today, beyond the path that it will just happen, year after year after year," he said.
But not all committee members were convinced HB338 was a wise approach.
If a school board decides that school is going to start at 6:30 a.m., it's not the voters who are going to be waking up at five in the morning, it's u
–Arundhati Oommen, West High School student
Rep. Matthew Gwynn, R-Farr West, said he had concerns the bill could create a "balance-of-power struggle, or line-of-authority struggle" if students could vote for school board members who have direct authority over teachers and administrators.
"So that gives me a little concern and a little pause. But I believe this is worthy of debate and I will support that motion" to send the bill to the House for further consideration, he said.
Rep. Stephen Christiansen, R-West Jordan, said if all 16- and 17-year-olds were as thoughtful and well-spoken as Oommen, "this would be a much easier decision, I would say."
But Christiansen said he has concerns about the poor voting turnout of 18 year olds.
"One of my concerns is that if that voting rate for 18 year olds is poor. I guess I'm going to assume that the voting rate for 16-, 17-year-olds may be even worse," he said.
Salt Lake City Board of Education President Melissa Ford urged the committee's support of HB338.
The bill would give local school boards "an opportunity to engage 16- and 17-year-old students in the civic process by allowing them the possibility of voting in their local school board elections. Studies show us that the earlier we can engage young people in voting, the more likely they are to remain lifelong voters," Ford said.
Oommen said 16-year-olds can work full-time jobs, pay taxes and drive with supervision.
"I would arguably say that driving is a little bit more dangerous than wielding a ballot, but we will see," she said.
Costs associated with passage of the bill would be about $17,000. "Including students and having their voices be heard is well worth the price," she said.
In an earlier interview, Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said 17-year-olds can currently vote in primary elections if their 18th birthday occurs on or before the general Election Day.
If the bill became law, the logistics of allowing younger voters to cast ballots in just school board races could be accomplished by sending a different style ballot to younger voters, she said.
Briscoe said the House may not be ready for the proposal but he hopes whatever happens that his fellow representatives would be open to the idea of studying the proposal during interim meetings.
"It takes a while for new ideas to catch on and be seen as OK. But given that there are a number of us who are very concerned about civics education and given that we have some young people who are ready, I hope that we would bring it in for a deeper dive," Briscoe said.