Utah House votes down bill that would have allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in school district races

Opponents argued that the state’s students weren’t ready for such a responsibility.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) In this Jan. 13, 2020, file photo, West High students conclude their classes. A West High junior was pitching a bill that would have allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local school board elections, but the bill failed in the Utah House of Representatives on Tuesday.

The Utah House of Representatives voted down a proposal Tuesday that would have created a pilot project allowing 16- and 17-year-old students to vote in their local school board elections.

The bill, rejected by a 50-22 margin, was brought forward by 16-year-old West High School junior Arundhati Oommen, who — with the help of Rep. Joel Briscoe, the bill’s sponsor — sought to spur youth voter engagement and give students a say on an elected body that makes decisions affecting them.

While students in this age group can’t choose who represents them on the school board, Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, noted that they have weighty responsibilities in other areas of their lives.

“You can hold a full time job. You can pay taxes. You can own your own business,” he said. “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. If you’re 17, you can join the armed forces. Lots of things we can do when we’re 16 and 17.”

And he believes students are also ready to vote.

Under HB338, each local school board would have been allowed to decide whether it wanted to allow those age 16 and older to participate in board elections. A board that did so would then have been required to coordinate with the county clerk to get young people registered and sent ballots.

The pilot project was proposed to begin next year and be reevaluated in 2027 and was limited to only local school board races. It would not have expanded voting rights to state elections, and even the Utah State Board of Education would have remained under the current voting age requirement of 18 and older.

But opponents of the bill argued Tuesday that students in the state weren’t ready for such a responsibility, with Rep. Steve Christiansen, R-West Jordan, noting a study from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation that showed 74% of older adults could pass the U.S. citizenship test, while just under 20% of younger adults could.

“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. “And until we get that foundation in place ... I will have a hard time supporting granting the right to vote to people that are younger.”

During his comments on the bill, Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, called on lawmakers to remember the 2004 movie “Napoleon Dynamite,” which featured his cousin, Jon Heder, as the title character.

In the scene where candidates for class president make their case to the student body during the election, Napoleon “does this super sweet dance, and everyone votes for Pedro because he’s wearing his vote for Pedro shirt,” Brammer noted.

“Now, there are a lot of 16- and 17-year-olds that know what they’re doing,” he said. “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.”

Proponents of the bill, on the other hand, argued Tuesday that the parents and lawmakers who were opposed to the effort were underestimating students.

Many of the emails she’s received in opposition to the bill “came from parents who are telling us that their children were not capable of and did not have these skills,” noted Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, “which I couldn’t help but feel maybe that was a bit of an unwitting disparagement of their own parenting.”

And Rep. Elizabeth Weight, D-West Valley City and a teacher, said she’s found in her conversations about elections with students that they are “interested and they get engaged and they ask serious, pertinent questions.”

During the proposal’s committee hearing late last month, Oommen also expressed hope that by engaging the 30% of the population that is younger than 18 early, the bill could help them become lifelong voters and decrease voter apathy.

Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, expressed a similar viewpoint Tuesday, noting that when he was in high school, he attended his first precinct-level caucus meeting through a political science course and left the room a delegate.

“This gave me an experience and opportunity at a moment in my life that put me on the path to being interested in politics where had I not had that, I may not be here today,” he said.

Teuscher said he’s worried about voter apathy and thought this proposal could help students get more involved in the political process by helping them get registered to vote and learn how to fill out a ballot at a young age.

“I just don’t think it is the worst idea in the world,” he said.