A 16-year-old Utah student has drafted a bill to allow those her age to vote in school board elections

West High junior Arundhati Oommen says students should have ‘the right to be heard’ on the races that affect them.

(Francisco Kjolseth |The Salt Lake Tribune) West High students conclude their day on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. A student at the school, Arundhati Oommen, is pushing for her peers age 16 and older to be able to vote in local school board elections.

Arundhati Oommen, a junior at West High School, is frustrated that students like her have no say in the elections that impact them the most: their local school board races.

When they’re in school, kids are typically too young to vote. But by the time they turn 18 , they’ve generally graduated before the next election and are no longer part of the school system that board members represent.

“Students deserve the right to be heard,” Oommen told state lawmakers Wednesday. “Teenagers are ready to be involved. All they need is the ability to do so.”

So Oommen, who is 16, has taken on drafting a bill this legislative session — with the sponsorship of Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City — to address her concern and give young people that ability. The measure, HB338, would make 16- and 17-year-olds in Utah eligible to vote in the school board races for their neighborhoods.

Oommen said she believes that will give students a voice on the issues that matter to them before they “age out.”

The bill is limited to only local school board races — no state elections, not even those for the Utah State Board of Education. Those would remain under the current voting age of 18 and older.

“Nothing gets more local than a local school board race,” Oommen said, noting that’s where issues are discussed, such as fees and start times, that directly affect students.

HB338 also allows each local school board to hold a vote and decide if they want to accept the change and allow those age 16 and older to participate in their elections; if they do, they’d then coordinate with the county clerk to get young people registered and sent ballots. Oommen is currently a nonvoting student representative who sits on the board for Salt Lake City School District, where members have been supportive of her initiative, which she presented there first.

Some boards in the state, though, she acknowledged, don’t like the idea. That’s why she wanted each to be able to individually choose what was best for their area, telling lawmakers skeptical of the idea that the provision allows for “local control.”

That helped gained the support of several Republicans on the House Political Subdivisions Committee, where the bill gained initial approval Wednesday on a 6-4 vote. It goes next to the House floor for a vote.

A few raised concerns about the measure. Rep. Steve Christiansen, R-West Jordan, was one of the “no” votes. He said he worries that young voters, ages 18 to 29, are already apathetic about voting. And he doesn’t believe many 16- and 17-year-olds would actually participate.

He qualified that by noting Oommen was well-prepared and had researched the effort. “If all 16- and 17-year-olds were like you,” he added, “this would be a much easier decision.”

But Christiansen also questioned whether lowering the age to vote — which he referred to as “probably the most cherished right that we all have” — would somehow lessen the value and lead young people to misunderstand the responsibility. He suggested they might not be mature enough to handle it.

Others questioned the support outside of Salt Lake County. And Rep. Matthew Gwynn, R-Farr West, said he worried about ethics of students voting for school board members that then, in turn, pick their principals. He voted in favor of it moving forward to the floor for discussion, but said he wasn’t sure how he’d vote then.

Oommen responded to each objection raised and pointed to several data points in a PowerPoint that she had made for the presentation. The led Gwynn to acknowledge: “I don’t know that I’m ever going to present a bill like you presented this today. That was impressive.”

Oommen agreed many young people are disengaged with voting and don’t participate. In Utah, she said, 16% of those age 18 to 29 turned out in the last election. But 30% of the population, she noted, is younger than 18. And engaging them early, she believes, would help them become lifelong voters and possibly decrease that apathy.

Additionally, thousands of Utah voters of all ages didn’t complete their entire ballots — usually leaving the “down ballot” races, such as school boards, blank. Often, that’s because they’re not informed on those matters, Oommen said, or individuals don’t feel impacted by them.

But school board races do make a difference for the students within an elected member’s district, and they are invested in how those turn out, the West High student said.

“We are mature, and we are interested,” Oommen added, noting that those running for election could come talk to a high school student body about their platforms.

Briscoe, the bill sponsor and a former teacher, encouraged that engagement and said students could become “the most informed members of their households on these issues.” And similar measures, he noted, have been passed in individual cities in Maryland and California.

Oommen also argued that a 17-year-old can join the armed forces. And 16-year-olds can work and drive. “I would say driving is maybe a little more dangerous than wielding a ballot,” she joked. Members of the committee laughed.

She also had support from several student body presidents at schools across the state, which sent in statements heard during the meeting. “I know I can make a difference,” one girl said. Another added, “I understand that voting is a privilege.”

Several also joined in to speak during public comment, filling the waiting room online. Sydney Ward, a recent graduate of Salem Hill High, said students are “the largest stakeholder group in the education system and so often the least heard.”

Molly Chien, a senior from the Salt Lake Center for Science Education, added: “My peers and I are capable and ready of participating in local school board elections.”

The bill also had support from the Utah PTA and the Utah Education Association, as well as the board president for Salt Lake City School District joining in the calls for it to pass.

If for some reason it doesn’t make it through this session, though — which is winding up with about one week left — Briscoe said he’d like the bill to be studied in the interim so that it can be refined and, eventually, implemented.

“I will do whatever it takes to get there,” Oommen concluded. “I owe it to the students I represent.”