I was very pleased to see that MP Don Davies introduced a private member’s bill this past week calling for the voting age to be lowered to age 16. I know private member’s bills usually never make it, but this one is well worth other MPs’ backing.
I’ve long been of the view that youth suffrage is the next logical stage in the evolution of the franchise.
It started off personal for me. The first time I canvassed door-to-door in an election I was 14 years old (yeah, I know, I was odd). And it chaffed that I wasn’t allowed to vote for the guy I was spending my volunteer hours working for. (And just to refute the argument that is now in your head: no, my parents had not pressed me into the canvassing. My parents are politically progressive, but electoral politics was not their thing.)
In an era when many are deeply concerned about declining voter participation and democratic engagement, why wouldn’t we want to encourage young people to vote at an earlier age (and when they have a good opportunity to debate political issues in their social studies classes)? If they did, they would be much more likely to continue voting throughout their lives.
And wouldn’t political candidates have to then spend more time and put more thought into appealing to younger voters – those who will have to live with the consequences of today’s political choices for longest?
So often, there has been an historical arbitrariness to where we draw age lines. You can vote at age 18, but only drink at 19 in many provinces. You can drive at 16. And consider this: until 1970 the voting age in Canada was 21 – which means generations of young people age 18-20 were permitted to fight and die in wars, but could not participate in electing those who decided upon our military involvements. And of course, our shameful history of denying the franchise (to women, Aboriginal people, those of Chinese and Japanese ancestry, etc.) should give us great pause to reflect on how nonchalant we have been about youth.
One argument that inevitably comes up in this context is that, “Young people will simply vote the way their parents tell them.” Of course, this was the dominant argument made against giving women the vote (“they will simply vote as their husbands instruct them”). The argument is grossly insulting.
All of us have met plenty of independent-minded young people under 18 who are passionate and well informed about politics and pressing global and current affairs, yet they are denied the franchise. (And conversely, we’ve all met many older people whose lack of political knowledge and understanding is mind-blowing, yet no one suggests this should deny them the right to vote.)
Often, when this debate emerges, the discussion turns on the question of whether young people are truly ready and able to vote. But it strikes me that this question should be turned on its head; surely, on a matter as fundamentally central to our democratic rights, the onus should be placed on those who would deny the franchise to justify beyond reasonable doubt that there is a compelling case for doing so.
So there’s my take. Members of Parliament – please give this bill your consideration.
Seth Klein is Director of CCPA’s BC Office. Follow Seth on Twitter @SethDKlein.