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Utah bill would allow teenagers to vote in local school board races

Posted at 6:19 PM, Feb 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-25 20:19:12-05

SALT LAKE CITY — If passed, HB338 would expand voting to some high school students in local school board races.

Some are skeptical about giving high schoolers the ability to vote, but Dhati Oomen, a West High School student who is at the forefront of the bill, said students should have a say in the decisions that impact their education.

"Students are the primary majority stakeholders for any school board," Oomen said. "I think that school boards are really servicing for students on our behalf."

Oomen originally proposed the bill and presented it in front of the House Political Subdivisions Standing Committee Wednesday. If passed, it would allow 16 and 17-year-old students to vote in their local school board races.

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"The better that they can represent what a student wants and believes in the better it is going to be for educators and students alike," she added.

Oomen, who serves on the Salt Lake City Board of Education as a student member, said allowing students to vote in school board races could have long lasting impacts on their civic engagement.

"Studies show that when voting and the importance of voting are taught in schools students are 40% more likely to vote, and to continue vote throughout their lifetimes," she said, adding that Utah currently ranks second to last in youth voter turnout.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, said the bill would benefit both students and school boards.

"I think it will create great dialogue between the generations," Briscoe said. "[School boards] will engage more with their high school students. They will be more likely to seek their opinions, they will be more likely to sit down with them and explain why decisions are being made."

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But not all are in favor of the legislation. Rep. Matthew Gwynn, R-Farr West, is concerned the bill would create a "line of authority struggle" by allowing students to vote for school board members, who in turn have direct control over school administration officials.

"When the student becomes an authority figure, again that's where for me I have an issue with this particular bill," Gwynn said. "I don't think we should be creating a political environment that we see outside of the school districts within the school districts."

Currently, the bill gives local school boards the power to decide if allowing students to vote is right for them.

"This bill needed to give flexibility to local school boards to have the right to choose," Oomen said. "That was something that was very important to me was to show students the importance of localized decision making."

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Although some question whether high schoolers are mature enough to take on the responsibility of voting, Oomen said students are more than capable of making rational, informed decisions when it comes to their education.

"Every peer that I have I know is ready to vote and able to," she said. "I think that we just really need to give more trust to your own children, because we can do it. We can really vote."

HB338 passed through committee with a six-to-four vote on Wednesday, and now moves to the House floor for full debate. Briscoe said regardless of whether the bill passes, it will be a topic that legislators continue to look at moving forward.