The pressure to lower the voting age to 16 from 18 is an idea that will not go away.
It appears we are headed toward another decision on the age limit before long. It is time to open our minds to the concept.
Vancouver council will deal with a motion this week to write the BC NDP government to endorse the concept. The Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) wants the John Horgan government to sanction 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in civic elections. Horgan’s NDP and the Green Party of BC have passed resolutions at their conventions in support. Organized labour and the BC Teachers Federation are aboard. Scotland, Austria and Argentina permit it, as do many jurisdictions within other countries.
The provincial government itself has sat on the fence, probably because it’s not a political winner quite yet. In a poll for our publications at Glacier Media earlier this year, Research Co. found that 64% of British Columbians opposed the idea. Only 28% supported it.
It is easy, with our supposed benefit of life experience, to dismiss the notion of a 16-year-old voter on the basis of a momentary surveillance of Instagram or a visit to a teen-teeming mall. Anecdotes are handy that way when we need to confirm biases.
On the other hand, anecdotally, I have known teens who pay closer and more enthusiastic attention to public issues than do people two and three times their age – just as I know adults who pay two and three times closer and more enthusiastic attention to public issues than do other adults.
There are excellent rights-based arguments to lower the voting age. In today’s Canada, a 16-year-old has reached the age of consent, of licenced driving, of applying for a passport, of working most everywhere and certainly of paying taxes – all privileges with deep relevance to electoral participation. With such agency, it is incongruent not to provide the vote.
There are also excellent policy-based arguments. Parties align their priorities to voters and ignore non-voters, old and young alike. Issues of importance to teens don’t need to be on the radar of parties because it costs nothing to ignore them. A teen’s rights and responsibilities, then, don’t necessarily extend into political attention on their priorities.
The idea’s proponents, no different than its opponents, employ self-interests so obvious as to be too transparent. Supporters generally occupy parties whose policies logically would attract a younger vote; opponents hold policies that wouldn’t.
There is also a lingering myth about apathetic youth. Research suggests low voter turnout among them owes more to disconnection from political institutions and their processes than to disinterest in issues. It also has something to do with a life phase of one’s late teens to early 20s, when the influence of parents declines, when education ends and jobs and longer-term relationships begin, sometimes in new communities. Politics temporarily takes a backseat. Indeed, there is research that suggests 16-year-olds are more likely to vote than are those a few years older, usually because of the influence of living with their parents.
Given that certain issues hold higher value to younger people – economic and social equality and climate change, for instance – one would assume that left-leaning governments would love to grant an additional cohort the power of the vote. But – and I am back into anecdotes and experience here – if the young mind is more impressionable, it is also less compromising. Any party that dilutes its policies is susceptible to rejection.
It’s not as if granting the vote to 16-year-olds will mean a flood of 16-year-old voters, either, because it’s not as if an election is held every year. Even though the voting age is 18, many don’t get to exercise that franchise until 19, 20 or 21. A voting age of 16 would bring many more voters aged 18 and 17, too.
While we’re debating the value of granting additional voting rights, it is also time to demand more of those already with those rights. We have just had to complete a census that carries with it a penalty if it’s not done. A vote ought to be no less of a societal requirement than a census, with incentives when one partakes and penalties when one evades. Similarly, we ought to be able to cast a ballot in any jurisdiction in which we own a business – the connection to that district in many ways is political and ought to furnish a right of electoral participation. And yes, we are ready at last for online voting as an option to broaden participation.
We might remember what it was like to be 16, but today’s 16 is more like my 21. Some of us might feel we’re coddling youth in a child-focused world, but young people are exposed to a far more adult environment at an earlier age than ever. They aren’t the children we were, and their exclusion from voting forestalls an important developmental step for us and them.
The pandemic has aged, even matured, many of us. I certainly feel two years older. Why not let someone two years younger vote? •
Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.