When getting ready for election campaigns, all parties put together their various platforms. Inside each of those platforms are ideas that are well-known to the public, some that have been long-standing planks. We also see some newer ideas, ones that haven’t been a part of the debate thus far. And finally in every platform, we see some obscure proposals that are outside of the norm of the day.
It’s not to say that’s it’s a good or bad idea, but it’s something that stands out as very different, which in of it’s draws a lot of debate. In their platform released back in June, the New Democrats have made one such proposal regarding the rules about when we can vote, one that is starting to draw some attention from folks like Shachi Kurl of the Angus Reid Institute:
Kurl’s piece is a good look at this proposal from the NDP, to lower the voting age by two years to 16. But like most discussion around this issue, there is very little public information and data around this debate. The reason for that is simple; many just haven’t taken the time to study and research people’s views on this. But with that in mind, I felt the need to respond to Kurl’s piece and mount a defense of a policy which I believe holds a lot of merit.
Kurl pointed to some of the usual pros put out by various proponents of this policy, which I believe are very valid and don’t need a lot of reiterating. But she also points to the views of some against this, which are what I want to go into more. Most of the reasons given for opposing this idea tend to come from a place of dismal and cynicism about youth in general, all while keeping a strong bling spot for the same behaviours in adults.
It’s true that youth as a group have the lowest rates of voting amongst the general population, and that’s especially troubling given that they are now the largest voting block in our elections. But let’s get real here folks; it’s not like the adults in the generations above them have a sterling record of turning out to vote or general engagement themselves. Having worked so many political campaigns, it’s become way too common to meet adults who keep saying “my vote doesn’t matter” or “I don’t know enough to vote”. Yet we don’t say that this cohort shouldn’t be able to vote, as if the fact that they are older merits taking that entire discussion away.
That is a big reason why I support lowering the voting age to 16; there is no rational reason to deny this group the franchise. Unlike what some say, yes 16 year-olds work and pay taxes (and pay into CPP, Old Age Security and alike) and they are one of the focus of some of the biggest expenditures of government in the education and post-secondary education systems. The fact is that many university and college students now start their post-secondary education before turning 18, yet they get no say in the people who make the decisions about if they will even be able to afford to go? That’s not right at all. These youth are not disinterested, passive observers, but their opinions get generally ignored because many politicians know they can’t vote against them yet. We saw a great example of this in Ontario and Alberta where student staged walk outs in support of sex education and GSA’s in their respective provinces.
One final piece of this discussion that is always left out of this discussion around age and voting is that we only have a limitation on the lower end of the voting scale; we don’t have one on the higher end at all. I only raise this because as our population ages, people live longer and we continue to see a rise in degenerative cognitive conditions, like dementia, we have a growing group of citizens who continue to get to vote despite their conditions. My late grandfather passed away a couple years ago at the age of 99 and was suffering from serious dementia for last five years or so of his life. In that time period, there were multiple elections he was allowed to vote in, despite many days not knowing where he was, the year or even who many members of his immediate family were. We don’t talk about placing this kind of voting limitation on the old (and I’m not suggesting that we do), yet we do it to the young, assuming that they are somehow too young to make an informed decision that we also assume late my grandfather could have made. This doesn’t add up.
In my view, if we keep setting the bar low on our expectations for youth, they will never reach as high as they can. This also applies to civic engagement and getting involved in our politics. Studies have shown that voting is a habit and once you start, it’s something you keep doing. Like with so many other good habits that we try to imbue in our youth, voting should surely be one of them. 16 seems like a very logical age to start giving the franchise and helps these young adults become fuller parts of our democracy sooner. Some say that this will help progressive parties do better, because the young tend to vote more for them, but I don’t believe that’s the point here. The fact is that conservative parties tend to ignore youth and their issues or pursue policies that don’t jive with the views of the young. So I would argue the problem is not the voters, the problem is what the parties are selling, and I think that our democracy would be much stronger if all parties were truly trying to reach out to all ages.
In the end, this is not a policy that is going to become law anytime soon. While this concept isn’t very new, seeing its inclusion in a major party platform is, so hats off to the NDP for taking that step. Having this in their platform starts a discussion about this worthy idea and can help us reflect more on our entire voting system. Our system is good, but it can be better. Any electoral system where only 60% of the eligible voters actually vote is not in fantastic shape, could use some reviewing and potential some new ideas. Would lowering the voting age to 16 solve this problem by itself? No. But I believe that getting youth more engaged in voting earlier will help to turn the tide and can work with hand in hand with other proposals to make our democracy stronger. That will make our democracy stronger and make our country a better place, which is what we all want, regardless of the partisan stripe.