Nearly every public high school student has to take a civics class to graduate. That’s where you learn how government works.
Some students at a Portland high school put their newfound knowledge into action. The result is Measure 54 on this year’s Oregon ballot. Salem correspondent Chris Lehman explains.
This story starts with a civics teacher at Portland’s Grant High School. He was trying to find creative ways to get his students interested in state government. So he pointed out some parts of the Oregon Constitution that seem outdated by today’s standards.
Student Hannah Fisher says she found some parts that were downright surprising.
Hannah Fisher: “They restrict who is able to vote in school board elections based on age and based on whether or not someone can read and write in English.”
Fisher and her classmates decided to do something about it. They spent months gathering evidence to help overturn what they thought were outdated, unfair restrictions … especially the one that said you had to be at least 21 years old to vote in a school district election.
The students thought the restrictions should be stricken from the Oregon Constitution, even though they were no longer enforced.
So they wrote a letter outlining their case to Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, who passed the information on to the Oregon Legislature. Lawmakers then summoned Fisher and two of her peers to testify in front of the House Elections Committee.
Hannah Fisher: “Why has this antiquated elector criteria established in Article 8, Section 6 remained in light of the revolving requirements to participate in any other election?”
What resulted was Ballot Measure 54, drafted by lawmakers last session. It updates the state constitution to ensure that 18-year-old voters can participate in all elections.
Fisher says she never thought her classroom project would make it this far.
Hannah Fisher: “It’s completely unreal that in just a few months it’s going to be in people’s mailboxes and they’re going to be checking a box next to Measure 54 that says yes or no.”
It sounds inspiring, but Portland Constitutional lawyer Charlie Hinkle is not impressed.
Charlie Hinkle: “Is there a problem that needed to be fixed?”
Hinkle says no.
Charlie Hinkle: “That Article 8, Section 6 that this Ballot Measure 54 seeks to repeal has been in the Constitution since 1948. And what problem has it created? I don’t know of any.”
According to Hinkle, removing the section in question actually creates a problem. He says it may prevent people who don’t own property from voting in school district elections.
The Chair of the House Elections Committee, Representative Diane Rosenbaum, says that’s not the intention of Measure 54. And there are no plans currently to restrict school bond elections to taxpayers.
As for Hannah Fisher, she’s now in her junior year of college. She says the effort to get the issue before the voters taught her a lesson in the value of civic participation.
Hannah Fisher: “It was really engaging and completely the spirit of democracy. So it was a great experience.”
And perhaps it propelled Fisher into a political career of her own. She’s now the student body President at Portland State University.