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Utah House: No vote for older teens in local school board races

Bill that would let school boards decide if 16- and 17-year-olds can vote in board races is defeated

Arundhati Oommen, a West High School student and student member of the Salt Lake City Board of Education, walks to a committee room to testify on HB338 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, would allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in school board races — if permitted by the local school board.
Arundhati Oommen, a West High School student and student member of the Salt Lake City Board of Education, walks to a committee room to testify on HB338 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, would allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in school board races — if permitted by the local school board.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah House of Representatives on Tuesday defeated the latest version of HB338, which would have allowed local boards of education to decide whether 16- and 17-year-olds could vote in school board elections.

The bill was rejected on a 22-50 vote.

The latest version of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, would have created a five-year pilot program starting Jan. 1, 2022.

“Any school district that wanted to continue to participate would have to come back to this body with data showing that they thought it was valuable and worthwhile and it would have to be re-approved here. It would limit the time,” Briscoe said.

Briscoe said 16-year-olds can hold full-time jobs, pay taxes and own their own businesses. “You can hunt without supervision. You can get married with parental consent. You can seek emancipation from your parents in court. You can stand trial as an adult,” Briscoe said.

HB338 would allow school boards, at local option, to permit 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local school board races.

Utah already allows 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections if their 18th birthday falls on or before the general election.

Briscoe said there is great concern about Americans’ knowledge of civics and this would be “an easy on-ramp” for older teens to receive a simple ballot that has one race and “they learn how to vote by mail, so that one or two years later when they’re 18, and they get a bigger ballot, they’ve already done it.”

Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, speaking against the bill, referenced a scene from the motion picture “Napoleon Dynamite” when the character Pedro ran for class president.

With Pedro on the verge of losing the race, Napoleon, clad in a Vote for Pedro T-shirt, jumped onstage and performed an elaborate dance routine, which resulted in Pedro winning the election.

“Now, there are a lot of 16- and 17-year-olds that know what they’re doing. They’re on the ball and they’re probably more mature than a lot of the people that are elected. But there’s a lot of them that will just vote for Pedro because it’s a super sweet dance,” he said.

Brammer said he worried that students holding the vote shifts the power dynamics in families and “now we have the school board members potentially going into the schools to collect votes.”

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.

Several House members complimented Oommen’s committee presentation but expressed opposition to the bill.

Rep. Stephen Christiansen, R-West Jordan, said Americans’ knowledge of civics is faltering. Just 74% of senior citizens could pass the U.S. citizenship test and only 20% of people 45 and younger could pass it.

“That tells me that in the younger generations, we have a significant lift ahead of us in order to really establish a solid foundation in terms of civic understanding,” he said, adding, “I think we need to get the foundation fixed first and then we can talk about extending this this sacred right to vote.”

Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, spoke in support of the bill.

“Looking at this bill, I just don’t think it is the worst idea in the world. I think it gives us a chance. It gives us a chance to get the kids excited about something while we still have them as a captive audience,” Teuscher said.

Oommen said she intends to keep working on the legislation.

“This is just the beginning and I, nor any of the students I represent, will not stop here. This is the greatest chance for Utah to lead the way in civic engagement. I will keep going until my sister has the chance to cast a ballot in who represents her education as a student,” she said.