In Canada’s early days of independence, elections were largely an affair for elite, white men. Property and income requirements prevented most of the working population from voting. Various movements gradually began to expand the franchise.
The labour movement sought to remove property requirements, allowing the majority of Canadian men to vote. In 1918, most women won the right to vote federally. In 1960, Aboriginal peoples were finally given unequivocal voting rights. In 1970, Parliament lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.
“The criteria around voting age in Canada have always been fluid,” says Don Davies, NDP MP for Vancouver Kingsway, B.C. With his bill, C-213, he wants to go one move further: lower the voting age to 16.
Schools can play a role
Davies emphasizes that his bill is a way to increase voter turnout among young people and the general population alike. He says most likely an election would happen while a student is in high school, an “organized environment that can guide them through the process.”
“By lowering the voting age, we could have the public school system take a more active role in encouraging young people to study the elections and cast a ballot,” Davies says. “And if they do, chances are they will continue voting.”
A 2012 study from Austria, where the voting age is 16, suggests that voters under 18 are no less motivated than other voters, and lowering the voting age leads to greater electoral participation later in life. However, the study draws from unreliable survey data, and Austria’s voting age has only been in effect for eight years.
“Chances are they will continue voting.”— Don Davies, MPBut for Davies, the case for lowering the voting age is a moral one too. Many 16- and 17-year-olds work, earn money, and are taxed without any representation in Parliament. At 17, with the consent of a parent or guardian, a teenager can join the army – but can’t vote.
“I just think that’s absurd,” Davies says.
“Some people say,‘16- and 17-year-olds, they’re still under the control of their parents. They’re not engaged in politics,’” Davies says. “We don’t ask a 25-year-old, ‘are you still under the influence of your parents?’ and nor do we ask how engaged they are. You can be a totally disengaged 40-year-old and you can still walk into a voting booth and drop a ballot in. Nobody requires you to be paying attention. So I think those are just false criteria.”
“I find it discriminatory, and its stereotyping [young people],” he adds.
Sammy Al-Rubaie, a student trustee for the Toronto District School Board, says youth engagement in U.S. elections shows younger people can be as informed as older voters.
“Younger people are starting to become more involved in politics and the bureaucracy that is in their lives at a younger age,” he says. Al-Rubaie is a Grade 12 student at York Mills Collegiate Institute in North York. He’s 18, but he represents high school students, many of whom are 16 and 17, on TDSB’s SuperCouncil.
“I find it discriminatory, and its stereotyping”— Don Davies, MP“If you look at Bernie Sanders and his supporters, many of them are young people who are unable to vote.” Al-Rubaie says it shows young people can responsibly look at a candidate for their platform and be informed citizens.
“On the other hand, you have older people who support politicians like Trump with extremely backwards logic and reasoning,” he says.
If increasing voter turnout is the goal, lowering the voting age is not a solution, according to John Curtice, a professor at Strathclyde University in Scotland who specializes in studying elections. Curtice examined the results of the 2014 Scottish referendum, in which 16- and 17-year-olds were able to vote.
“They were still less likely to vote than those who were more than twice their age,” he says. “Those who look to the enfranchisement of 16- and 17-year-olds in all elections as a way of boosting turnout should, it seem, not set their expectations too high.”
The Scottish Parliament voted in June to lower the voting age to 16 for all Scottish elections.
“I have been impressed by the thoughtful and passionate contributions that young people have made to the debate on the current proposals to extend the franchise permanently,” John Swinney, Scottish deputy first minister, said at the time.
One of the key rationales behind this move is the ability for students to have direct access to the democratic system while they are in school taking civics class. In the words of Jan Eichhorn, a University of Edinburgh professor, “There is a distinct effect political discussion can have on young people that no other institution could replicate for all young people after the age of 18.”
Along with Scotland and Austria, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina and Norway each have some form of voting at 16. Grassroots groups across Canada support a change, such as the Federation of Young Francophones in New Brunswick (pictured above) and Lethbridge, Alta. Councillor Jeff Coffman, whose resolution to ask the province to lower the voting age was defeated in September.
Minister for Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef has said she will consider the voting age as part of ongoing reforms of the federal electoral system.
A previous bill
Mark Holland, MP for Ajax, has invested significant time and effort into promoting the idea. Holland received media attention in 2005 for introducing a bill lowering the voting age. In December, Holland said he was looking forward to seeing 16-year-olds get the vote.
“I think we have a huge problem with people under 25 not voting and not being engaged in the democratic process,” he said then. In January he was made parliamentary secretary to Monsef.
“Never before in history has more information or engagement been possible for young people. With social media and the internet,” Davies says. “There’s no principled reason, that I can see, why we would prevent those people from voting.”
“[With] cross-partisan support for this bill,” Davies says, “the time is right for it.”
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