Utah’s Fight For Student Voting

Adelaide Parker

Recently, West High junior Arundhati Oommen made statewide headlines as she led a proposal to expand student voting rights and spur youth voter engagement. This proposal, which was recently introduced to the Utah State Legislature, aimed to allow those over the age of sixteen to vote in local school board elections, giving students a voice in their own education and promoting an early interest in local politics.

         However, after a contentious debate, the bill was rejected. Although it received overwhelming support from both Salt Lake City’s school board and various committees within the Utah legislature, House representatives had their reservations when considering the bill.

         “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,” said opponent of the bill Rep. Steve Christiansen, in a recent interview with the Salt Lake Tribune. “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.” Like Rep. Christiansen, many members of Utah’s legislature believed that those under age 18 are simply not ready to vote. Citing worries about civic engagement, peer pressure, and knowledge of local politics, Utah representatives voiced their concerns that voting is “too serious a responsibility” for Utah’s 16 and 17-year-old students.

         When speaking out against the bill, one Utah representative even cited cult classic Napoleon Dynamite as a reason to restrict student voting.

During the legislature’s debate session, Rep. Brady Brammer recounted a scene in the movie where Napoleon “does this super sweet dance, and everyone votes for Pedro because he’s wearing his vote for Pedro shirt.”

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

Despite this criticism, proponents of the bill were steadfast in their support of the proposal. During the March 2nd legislative debate, several Utah representatives stood up for the state’s students, telling Brammer and other opponents of the bill that they were underestimating students’ interests and capabilities.

“You can hold a full-time job. You can pay taxes. You can own your own business. […] You can get married with parental consent. You can seek emancipation from your parents in court. You can stand trial as an adult. [There are] lots of things [you] can do when [you’re] 16 and 17,” stated the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Joel Briscoe, in his opening remarks. Briscoe and other advocates of the bill believed that voting in school board elections was a natural expansion of these many rights – one that would not only give 16 and 17-year-olds a voice in their local government, but also spur lifelong civic engagement.

“This is just the beginning and I, nor any of the students I represent, will not stop here,” Arundhati told the Deseret News in an interview after the final vote. “This is the greatest change 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.”

Although the bill did not pass, Arundhati and other proponents for student voting will continue to fight for the expansion of student voting rights. Through civic education, exposure to local politics, and even future bills, Utah’s students, teachers, and legislature can foster civic engagement, giving Utah’s students a voice and an interest in local politics.