On youth voting and the democratic character of Canada

 cr: google

cr: google

In the 2015 Canadian federal election, 57.1% of persons between the ages of 18 and 24 fulfilled their civic duty to vote - a dramatic increase from 38.8% in the 2011 election. This increased participation in the electoral process suggests that youth are becoming more civically engaged in the political sphere of Canadian society.  Now the question must be asked: is it worth revisiting the debate regarding lowering the voting age? Earlier this year, the New Democratic Party (NDP) announced their stance on lowering the voting age to 16, which was met with plenty of controversy. Many argue that the maturity of 16-year-olds falls short of that which is required to participate in the voting process, and that opening the door to younger voters would fail to engage an already apathetic subset of society.

One of the major problems with the current voting system is a widespread lack of awareness among young people with regards to their civic obligations within the existing Canadian political structure. While this includes straightforward issues like registering to vote, it also encompasses factors such as understanding party platforms, keeping up to date with current political issues, and understanding how to express individual political views effectively within the confines of a working governmental structure (as opposed to external action, such as protesting). Furthermore, as youth are increasingly able to exercise their political voice, a rise in political engagement and voter turnout could realistically occur in the near future.

Reducing the voting age would also encourage families to introduce their children to the civic responsibility of voting. This would potentially lead to the habitualization of voting amongst youth and establish a culture of greater political participation in Canadian society. The crux of the argument here is that young people are more likely to follow in the footsteps of their parents vis-à-vis political involvement and interest. The seasoned, adult voter would act as a mentor to the young and inexperienced; this would facilitate access to voting centers and the registration process come election time. Lowering the voting age to 16 may have the positive effect of raising voter turnout within the general age bracket, given that life can often become increasingly chaotic around the age of 18 (as a result of higher education or employment). Alternatively, most 16-year-olds are sharing a house paid for by their parents or guardians, and attending high school on a regular basis. Ultimately, lowering the voting age would hopefully enhance the democratic character of the Canadian political system by engaging this demographic.

Taking a look at other democratic countries might shed some valuable light on this conundrum. Austria, having lowered the voting age to 16 in 2007, enjoyed a boost in youth political engagement afterwards. 16-year-old and 17- year-old voter turnout was effectively higher than turnout for the 18 to 20-year-old cohort. This is compelling evidence in favour of reducing the voting age to 16 as it appears that this would theoretically lead to a net increase in political participation.

To determine whether or not youth are prepared for the responsibilities that come with voting, we need only to look at the many responsibilities already afforded to them in our province and across Canada. By the age of 16, youth may already consent to sex (and potentially start a family), drive a vehicle, emancipate themselves from parents or guardians, work, and pay taxes (if yearly income is over the $6,300 deduction threshold for dependents under the age of 18). The responsibility to pay taxes is one that caught the attention of NDP Member of Parliament Don Davies, who subscribes to the American revolutionary slogan, “no taxation without representation”. Davies has a point: is it democratic to tax a segment of the population without granting them a voice in determining how their taxes are put to use?

Democracy is no stranger to resistance. We saw resistance throughout the First World War and during the suffragist movement. Similar resistance was also observed over time as ethnic minorities fought for voting rights, and when indigenous peoples were finally granted the right to vote in the 1960s while maintaining their treaty rights and status. Each of these groups faced similar criticisms questioning their maturity, capacity, and ability to handle the responsibility of voting. In each instance, a more inclusive form of democracy emerged and eventually prevailed. Do we believe that 16-year-olds will eventually be granted the right to vote? Absolutely. But as public opinion changes slowly and incrementally, democracy will persist relentlessly, awaiting for a window of opportunity to make the next leap.