A new bill facing the Oregon Legislature this session would lower the voting age for school board elections.
Other bills this session aim to lower the state’s voting age in various capacities, including House Joint Resolution 20, which proposes an amendment to the Oregon constitution to lower the state’s voting age from 18 to 16.
House Bill 3206 focuses on allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to cast ballots in school district elections.
If passed, this could bring in an estimated 100,000 new voters statewide to these local elections that often see low voter turnout. Proponents also see this as an opportunity for young voters to become civically engaged sooner.
“These are the elections that most intimately impact (students’) educational experience,” said Rep. Ben Bowman, D-Tigard. “They’re a key stakeholder here and should have the ability to vote.”
The bill has several Democratic sponsors from the House and Senate but is largely led by Bowman, who has also served three and a half years on the Tigard-Tualatin School Board. His school board term ends in June.
“When I look back at the most impactful and meaningful things that we’ve accomplished together, student leaders were at the table for each one of them,” Bowman said, “and they wouldn’t have happened without students.”
Bowman listed several examples, including the district’s decision to eliminate pay-to-play fees for all sports and activities, crafting a racial justice and educational equity policy and passing the district’s Menstrual Dignity Act, which provides free sanitary products to all students, before the state required districts to do so.
“Each time,” he said, “we had 18-year-olds and 17-year-olds who were leading the way and providing insight.”
Though Bowman said House Bill 3206 likely wouldn’t go into effect until 2025, it could have a substantial impact on these local elections.
Half of the board members in Oregon’s school, community college and education service districts are elected or re-elected in May every odd-numbered year, according to the Oregon School Boards Association. Board members are unpaid and nonpartisan, and they serve four-year terms.
School board members vote on and oversee policies for 197 public K-12 school districts, impacting more than 553,000 students statewide.
A rough estimate from Bowman’s office asserts that about 100,000 Oregonians ages 16 and 17 would be added to the voting pool if the bill passes.
“When I look at what is happening nationally, and even statewide and locally, I think it’s fair to say that the health of our democracy is not great,” Bowman said. School board elections and meetings have become increasingly political and at times violent in recent years. “The message I’m trying to send with this bill is that the solution to the challenges we’re facing is everybody having a voice and everybody using their voice.
“That should include 16- and 17-year-olds who have as much or more at stake in the outcome of these elections,” he said, “(particularly) where the quality of their education is a direct outcome of who wins these elections.”
Data shows voter turnout for young Americans is increasing nationwide. According to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, 27% of youth – ages 18-29 – cast a ballot in 2022, making it the midterm election with the second-highest youth voter turnout in almost three decades.
But voter turnout in odd years and local elections is known for being low historically.
In the May 2021 special election, four of the seven seats on Salem-Keizer Public School’s governing board – which oversees the second-largest district in the state – were up for election. Donors contributed tens of thousands of dollars to candidates’ campaigns. Yet less than 27% of Marion County voters cast their ballots.
Bowman said his bill has received some pushback, particularly from people arguing these students are too young to make decisions that impact so many people.
In response, Bowman cited a 2010 study published by The American Academy of Political and Social Science that presents both empirical and philosophical arguments as to why 16- and 17-year-olds are equally prepared for the civic responsibility of voting as their 18-year-old peers.
The study rejects the claim that 16 is an arbitrary age, and that it is, in fact, the earliest age at which young people show the same capacity for civic engagement as those older than them. As Bowman put it, they are “as prepared as 18-year-olds to make these hard decisions.”
In the bill’s committee hearing on Feb. 21, one young testifier pointed out that he was driving a car when he was 16; he had a job when he was 16.
“We trust 16-year-olds to work and to contribute to the economy. We trust them to be in an automobile, which can be incredibly dangerous,” Bowman added when speaking with the Capital Chronicle. “To me, it makes sense to help them get started on developing good voting habits and regular voting habits.”
Since school board elections are nonpartisan, Bowman said these elections will be good for first-time voters since they can’t vote by party alone. He said he hopes this leads them to read the pamphlet, understand the candidates’ stances and do more research before voting.
Bowman also wants the bill to have an impact on those campaigning. Individuals have already started announcing their candidacies for this year’s May election.
“The exercise of running for office is making your pitch to voters about your vision and what you want to do for them and for the community,” he said, adding that with the expanded voter pool, he would want candidates to appeal to youth as well.
The bill needs to be scheduled for a work session by March 17 to continue in the legislative process.
Oregon Capital Chronicle
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