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Why this Utah lawmaker wants to let 16-year-olds vote

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Tree_Planting_sh_03.jpg

Teen Miss Utah Earth 2020 Eliana Groves, 16, center, gets some help from her mother, Maria, left, and sister, Analina, right, to dig a hole to plant a plane tree at Stratford Park in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 4, 2020. Utah is currently considering a bill that would allow young people to vote in school board elections starting at age 16.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

A lot of proposed constitutional amendments pop up each year, then die a quiet death.

So, it’s wise not to hyperventilate. However, it is worth noting that one, introduced in Congress earlier this month, has many smaller echoes across the country right now, including in Utah. Echoes sometimes combine to make real noise.

HJRES23, introduced by Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., would lower the nation’s voting age to 16, changing the wording of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the age to 18 amid the cacophony of anti-war protests a half-century ago. It has been introduced before, and it has died before.

This time, however, Utah lawmakers also are considering HB338 which, in its present form, would let Utah school districts decide whether to allow people 16 and older to vote in school board elections only. 

Crazy, you say? Well, consider that Utah already allows 17-year-olds to register and vote in primary elections, provided they will turn 18 on or before the general election. What’s another year?

Then again, when will it end? If the voting age becomes 16, could 15-year-olds vote in primaries so long as they turn 16 by the general election? Is a learner’s permit good enough to drive yourself to the Post Office to mail a ballot, provided you have an adult chaperone?

In the ’60s, 18-year-olds were being drafted to fight in an unpopular war. The phrase, “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote” had a certain logic to it. But does, “Old enough to drive, old enough to vote” carry the same weight?

Young activists say global climate change is their Vietnam. That’s a bit of a stretch. Global climate change will affect everyone, not just high school students. 

But the Utah bill’s sponsor, Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, a former high school teacher, told me not to underestimate the sophistication of young people these days. More than that, he sees a ripple effect to letting kids vote in school board races that would generate greater political awareness in families.

“If I’m running for the school board and these kids have the right to vote, I’ll be talking to these young people,” he said. 

Schools could hold assemblies in which candidates answer questions. Kids might come home and tell parents, “I’m voting for Mrs. A, because I liked her answers to this or that better than Mr. B.”

Discussions would ensue. As a result, students and parents would be much more informed about school board races, which tend to glide under the radar of voter awareness.

At least, that’s the best-case projection. I have trouble getting past the fact that, despite all the protests so long ago, people in the 18-21 category don’t have a stellar record of showing up to vote. They may have hit the mid-50th percentile in turnout last November, giving President Joe Biden a boost, but the nationwide turnout among eligible voters was about 66%. It’s also hard to get beyond the question of maturity, life experience and independence. Could you get sent to your room for a ballot that cancels a parent’s vote? 

If you look nationwide, you can see this idea rising, not so much as a wave, but as a slow-moving tide that, so far, has ebbed as much as it has flowed. 

Some municipalities, like Takoma Park, Maryland, have decided to let 16-year-olds vote in city elections. 

Elsewhere, such as in California, decisions have been mixed. In San Francisco, 51% of voters last November rejected a measure that would have allowed a similar thing, while voters across the bay in Oakland approved a measure allowing 16-year-olds to vote only in school board races. Statewide, meanwhile, voters soundly rejected a measure to lower the overall voting age to 17.

It isn’t as if there is a groundswell. A Hill-HarrisX poll two years ago found 75% of Americans opposed to 17-year-olds voting, and 84% against lowering the age to 16.

But then, activists will say that’s about where Americans were on the idea of 18-year-olds voting in the late 1930s. It takes time to change opinions.

Nearly three months ago, I wrote a column that expressed openness to the idea of letting 16-year-olds vote in school board elections. I’m now wavering. 

There is a logic to letting kids 16 and up vote in those races. The long-term effects of getting young people excited about voting and giving them real experience seem nothing but good. School board races could use an infusion of genuine interest.

It’s the stepping stone to a much broader constitutional amendment I’m worried about.