Local lawmakers don’t support extending school board vote to teens

West High School student Arundhati Oommen (right) appeared before the House Political Subdivisions Committee on Feb. 24 to urge Utah lawmakers to favorably consider a proposal to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to participate in local school board elections.

SALT LAKE CITY – On Feb. 26, House lawmakers from Cache Valley joined the majority of their colleagues in a voice vote that delayed any action on a proposal to give 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote in local school board elections.

House Bill 338 was proposed by Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-District 25, at the urging of Arundhati Oommen, a West High School student who serves on the Salt Lake City Board of Education as a student member.

The proposal would have given local school boards the option to allow high school students to participate in their elections.

“Personally, I’m not a fan of that idea,” said Rep. Mike Petersen, R-District 3, during a virtual town hall meeting hosted by Cache County GOP on the eve of the Feb. 26 vote.

Petersen said that he had received hundreds of e-mail messages from constituents who were concerned about HB 338 and that he planned to vote against advancing the proposal.

Oommen, 16, presented HB 338 to the House Political Subdivisions Standing Committee on Feb. 24, arguing that students are “the majority stakeholders” in decisions by local school boards. She added that the proposal had the potential to promote civic engagement for young people and also increase voter turn-out in the future.

HB 338 narrowly passed committee muster by a six-to-four vote, but was greeted with little enthusiasm in the full House.

“I don’t want to start cherry picking which elections someone can or can’t vote in,” said Rep. Joel Ferry, R-District 1. “If the voting age is 18, it should be 18 for everything. If it needs to be adjusted to 16, then let’s adjust it to 16 for everything.

“But that should be discussed in a broader way holistically, so we’re not just saying ‘you can vote in this election, but not that one’.”

While sharing his colleagues’ concerns about HB 338, Rep. Dan Johnson, R-District 4, revealed a soft spot in his heart for the proposal’s youthful originator.

“(Ms. Oommen) is not an activist. She’s just a really bright, hard-working kid who really enjoys civic engagement,” Johnson said.

“So she comes up with a plan to try to promote that,” the retired educator added. “I think that’s kind of neat.

“I’m not sure that I’d vote for it. But I think what (Ms. Oommen) has done and why she did it is exactly the kind of thing that we want young people doing. She’s not demonstrating or trying to start a riot or standing on a corner with a sign. She’s actually civically engaged … and I think that’s pretty remarkable.”

After the Feb. 26 voice vote by the full House, HB 338 is now circled on its legislative calendar, meaning that any action on the proposal has been temporarily postponed.

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