Two measures pending in the Oregon Legislature seek to lower the voting age in Oregon. One of those measures, House Joint Resolution 20, proposes an amendment to the Oregon Constitution to lower the state’s voting age from 18 to 16.
But we’re more intrigued by House Bill 3206, a proposal from Oregon Rep. Ben Bowman, D-Tigard, which would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote — but only in elections for their local school boards.
“These are the elections that most intimately impact (students’) educational experience,” Bowman told the Oregon Capital Chronicle. “They’re a key stakeholder here and should have the ability to vote.”
To its great credit, Oregon has a well-deserved reputation for removing barriers to voting: The state, to list just one example, was a pioneer in voting by mail. And even as other states work to construct new (and, frankly, unnecessary) restrictions on voting, Oregon is moving the other way. But, to be honest, our very first reaction to Bowman’s bill was that these students are too young to make decisions of such local importance.
Then we had second thoughts.
Bowman, who served on a school board before his election to the Legislature, told the Capital Chronicle that the achievements he was proudest of as a trustee came with student leaders sitting at the table.
And let’s be blunt: It’s not as if adults are doing a great job casting ballots in these off-year elections: In the May 2021 election, not quite a third of registered voters in Wallowa County — 32.5% — took the time to cast a ballot.
That’s too bad. The truth is that these off-year elections, for seats on school boards or special districts such as the Wallowa County Health Care District, often have a local impact that dwarfs higher-profile national or statewide races. They deserve more attention than voters give them.
It makes a certain amount of elegant sense to give younger voters a say in choosing the leaders who shape the most important institution in their lives. Opening school board elections to 16- and 17-year-olds might serve as an early entrée into voting, and could shape a lifelong habit.
And, in a roundabout way, inviting younger voters to these elections might help motivate older souls to pay more attention to these races. Parents getting quizzed by their children about a school board race won’t want to admit that they weren’t planning to vote. And some older souls might discover a new interest in these races — if only to serve as a potential check on what those meddling kids are up to at the ballot box.
In the meantime, the deadline for signing up to run as a candidate in the May 16 election is coming up fast. March 16 is the deadline for filing for one of the numerous positions on the May ballot. The list includes includes seats on school boards, the health care district, the Wallowa County Education Service District and an array of other districts — cemetery districts, sewer and water districts, water improvement districts, rural fire department districts.
These are not particularly glamorous positions. Someone aiming for a big-time political career probably isn’t thinking about a seat on the local cemetery board as the first step to the White House.
But these are the places where the heavy lifting of democracy gets done. Our communities are powered by the work of these boards.
You can hope that enough people file to make sure that the work gets done. Or you can decide that the time has come for you to throw your hat in the ring. But you need to decide fast.
At the least, why not plan to be sure that you’ll vote in the May 16 election? After all, if Bowman’s bill passes, you’ll want to be able to tell those new voters that you’re a veteran hand at these off-year elections.
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