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Why not let 16-year-olds vote in school board races?

Arundhati Oommen, the nonvoting student member of the Salt Lake City Board of Education student member, poses for a portrait in front of West High School in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. Oommen is urging the board to allow 16-year-olds to vote in school board elections because the board’s actions impact them significantly.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

If you’re looking for signs that we are living in unusual times, look no further than the fact that children are protesting because they want to go to school.

In my day, you’d need your head examined for doing something like that. The whole idea was to find ways to get out of going.

But then, my friends and I were never forced to stay home and away from each other because of a pandemic.

If you’re looking for even more signs, consider how some students are pushing to lower the age for voting on school board races to 16. This is more than just a fleeting idea. Voters in Oakland, California, approved a referral measure last month that does exactly that. It wasn’t close, with 68% in favor and 32% opposed.

It may be interesting to examine how many of those 68% actually cast ballots in their own school board races.

This idea of empowering young people surfaced in Utah recently when West High student Arundhati Oommen made a formal proposal to the Salt Lake City Board of Education, on which she sits as a nonvoting youth member. She called it a “true paradox” that the system allows people to vote for school board representation only after they no longer go to school.

Another paradox is that young people are clamoring to vote for school board races when grownups, who have that right, often ignore those races most of all.

This year is likely to go down in history as a unicorn. The things that occupy our time and energy — debates about mask-wearing, arguments over whether to hold in-person school despite the risk of spreading the virus, big-league sports being played in front of cardboard cutouts — are likely never to confront us again. We obsess about the “new normal,” everything from online church to the full-time home office, but much of that is likely to dissolve back into the old normal once the virus leaves.

But the sudden awareness by high schoolers about the value of in-person schooling and the true power of democracy are two things I hope don’t dissolve away. If Oommen and others like her understand one thing, it is that the races closest to the voters — school board positions, for example — matter much more to our daily lives than most of what either Donald Trump or Joe Biden could do, short of starting a war and reinstituting the draft.

Out of curiosity, I studied Utah’s voting totals from last month to see how many people understand this. A total of 1,487,677 people cast ballots for president. But Amendment G, the measure to dramatically change how schools are funded, attracted 74,417 fewer votes than that. Other down-ballot races did even worse. The state treasurer’s race, for instance, attracted 154,547 fewer votes.

I couldn’t make any conclusions about school board races because not all voters live in districts that had one in 2020. But I have a good idea. Every two years, I have the privilege of moderating debates among candidates for the State Board of Education. These are available to watch electronically, on demand. We discussed policies this year about the pandemic, yet few people watched.

It’s clear that too many people are tricked by social media or television ads into focusing only on the top of the ticket, while ignoring other races that matter. At the moment, school boards and their various reactions to the pandemic, seem to matter a lot.

I know all about the research that shows the human brain doesn’t fully mature until most people reach their 20s. That might argue for increasing the voting age, rather than decreasing it.

And yet there is something intriguing and logical about letting 16 year olds — who, after all, can legally navigate heavy and potentially deadly automobiles on our roads —- have a say in who represents them on the school board. There is something hopeful about letting kids that age study and value the importance and relevance of down-ballot races. Maybe that would make them more serious voters when, as adults, the law lets them vote in what we typically think of as bigger races.

Yes, I know how silly 16-year-olds can be. I remember how I would overreact to trivial things at that age and what a limited view I had about many things in life.

But then, I never protested for the right to go to school rather than stay home. Maybe this unicorn of a year has made kids that age a little more serious about things.