How My Bill (Almost) Became a Law
I might not be allowed to vote,
but I can still change our political system
By: Arundhati Oommen
As I waited for the committee members to decide the fate of my bill, a Republican lawmaker looked down at me and said, “If all 16- and 17-year-olds were like you… this would be a much easier decision.” A few minutes later he voted against my bill, H.B. 338 (School District Voter Eligibility Amendments), which would let local school districts extend voting rights to older teens for school board elections.
I had arrived for the February 24 hearing before the House Political Subdivisions Committee prepared with a 10-page slide presentation, support from dozens of student leaders across the state, and a list of facts and arguments to counter any critique. Looking up at the ten legislators sitting behind the imposing dais, I explained why letting high school students vote in local elections would help reduce apathy among younger voters. When they asked questions like whether older teens were mature enough to cast a vote, I responded that 17-year-olds in Utah can work, start a business, run a political campaign, and sign up for the Armed Forces. I didn’t tell them that I had to get permission from my high school principal to skip class to attend the hearing, but that was true, too.
My bill passed out of the committee in a 6-4 vote, but a week later it was defeated on the House floor. Although I could look at my efforts at the Utah Legislature as a failure, I choose to consider them a minor setback on the road to eventual success.
As the youngest serving student board member for the largest urban school district in the state during an unprecedented year for public education, I decided I wanted to accomplish something during my tenure. In July 2020, I read an article about a Los Angeles research measure to grant teens voting rights in local elections. I contacted the student behind the measure via Instagram (it’s how high school students communicate, after all) to ask him about the initiative and to learn how I could launch a similar effort in Salt Lake City. Our conversation made me hopeful that Utah teens could gain limited voting rights through legislation passed by local city councils. However, additional research and conversations made it clear that the only pathway forward to give 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote was statewide legislation. And then meant going to the Utah Legislature.
I soon connected with Rep. Joel Briscoe (D-Salt Lake City), who had run similar legislation in the past, including a successful bill in 2018 that allows 17-year-olds who will turn age 18 by the general election to vote in the primary election. Rep. Briscoe confirmed that lowering the voting age for school board elections could only accomplished with a change in state laws. He then told me that he would gladly sponsor a bill to do that.
The next step was organizing and building support for the bill concept. I immediately reached out to other student leaders, community members, and school board members to create a coalition to support expanded voting access for older teens. Instead of allowing all 16- and 17-year-olds in Utah to vote in local elections, we decided this legislation should grant local school boards the choice to lower the voting age for students in their districts. While the bill we crafted had a narrower impact than similar legislation in other states and cities, we decided these compromises would give it the greatest chance for success on Utah’s Capitol Hill. Once we decided on the scope of the bill, I worked with Rep. Briscoe and the Office of Legislative Research and Counsel to draft what became H.B. 338.
Once the bill was drafted and finalized, we faced a new challenge: Time. Lasting only 45 days, the legislative session in Utah is one of the shortest in the nation. By now it was already mid-February, and the 2021 session was in full swing. I had to stay in communication with my coalition, bill sponsors, and supportive groups like the ACLU of Utah to keep the process on track. Without constant prodding, a bill could get stuck in the Rules Committee, a group of lawmakers who act as gatekeepers deciding which bills are assigned to specific committees for hearings.
Within a week of being released, my bill made it out of the Rules Committee and was assigned to the House committee where I delivered my presentation. In addition to my testimony, I included pre-recorded videos of other high school students from across the state voicing their support for the measure. Several committee members told me that my presentation changed their vote from No to Yes, and the bill cleared the committee in a 6 to 4 vote.
A week after clearing the House committee, H.B. 338 failed on the House floor. Although lawmakers engaged in a comprehensive debate on the issue, many legislators expressed concern about the ability of 16-year-olds to make rational decisions about a ballot choice. I was disappointed that many lawmakers did not listen to my arguments and supporting evidence that young people can make mature decisions if adults give them the chance.
Other factors that defeated my bill were persistent attacks by conservative education advocates who oppose giving students more independence and choices, as well as special interest lobbyists in the education field. And despite our repeated attempts to explain the opt-in feature of the bill, some opponents to H.B. 338 still claimed it would require all school districts to expand voting to include teens. Lastly, when I heard opponents stating the false claim that “under H.B. 338 all 16-year old’s get to vote for president,” I learned that spreading obvious misinformation about bills is not only common at the Utah Legislature, but also effective.
I believe my status as a high school student best positioned me to advocate on behalf of other youth to expand our right to vote in local elections. But I also realized my youth made my work more difficult. Some lawmakers praised me as an “exception” to the general population of Utah students before voting against my bill, while others subjected me to patronizing comments that adults would never receive. At the end of the day, however, I believe that H.B.338 would not have attracted the attention it did nor move forward in the legislature without a student at its helm.
While H.B. 338 may have failed this year, I believe this bill is well positioned to return next year and become law. During my next attempt in 2022, I plan to counter misinformation campaigns early, address the specific concerns of legislators, and build widespread community support. I am also extremely grateful for the many mentors who guided me through the legislative process, and I plan to seek out even more guidance and advice next year.
Even without becoming law this year, H.B. 338 has already changed the political landscape for all Utah teens. Plus, it has moved the farthest through the legislative process of any statewide bill to lower the voting age in the nation.
Dhati Oommen is a junior at West High School in Salt Lake City and a communications intern at the ACLU of Utah.