COLUMN: Let’s lower the voting age

Local columnist Al Lehmann advocates for lowering the voting age

Al Lehmann

A little understood process intended to expand policy initiatives beyond the governing party in parliament is a lottery run by the Speaker, determining the order among all the MPs in which, time permitting, they will be permitted to bring forward suggested legislation in the form of Private Members’ Bills.

This parliament, our own MP Taylor Bachrach is apparently 29th on the list. He, along with some supporters, is renewing the proposal to lower the voting age to 16. It has been suggested before, and a number of democracies around the world have adopted it.

A frequently expressed criticism of the notion rests on the conviction that younger members of society lack the knowledge, experience, and maturity to understand either the structural processes of our democracy or the history and complexity of the issues which government is meant to manage.

It’s an old trope, the vision of adolescents as fun-seeking, irresponsible older children not to be trusted, an extension of the maxim that children should be seen but not heard. Apathetic, immature adolescents won’t vote, anyway.

We can count on atavistic defenders of the status quo (or worse) to oppose such initiatives as this one. Often, they oppose fair voting at all, as in the numerous American states that have recently passed legislation making it more difficult to vote, especially for people of colour and poor people. Despite the pieties of their propaganda, increasing numbers of Americans seem willing to abandon democracy altogether.

In Canada, however, there are numerous arguments to support the idea of expanding the vote lower than the current limit of eighteen years.

The age of consent for having sex in Canada is sixteen years. One might think that risking the creation of a child, including the attendant responsibilities of supporting and raising it, might be considered more consequential than adding one potentially immature vote to the list of over 27 million electors in Canada.

A driver’s license is obtainable by a sixteen-year-old. I recall being taught to drive by my older brother, who emphasized in one of my earliest lessons that I should always remember that when driving I was handling a weapon capable of killing people if used carelessly. Yet we allow this responsibility to sixteen-year-olds.

As a population, Canadians seem to hold the right to vote rather ambivalently. Nearly 40% of Canada’s federal voters couldn’t be bothered. Some amusingly paper over their apathy with comments like, “It doesn’t matter who you vote for. The government always gets in.”

To counter this lack of concern, Australian law makes voting compulsory. Whether or not compulsory voting improves the quality of governing may be a moot point, but over 90% of voters typically participate.

Governments tend not to make new policy for the past, but to try to improve the future. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that those who will be living in it should have at least some say in influencing its direction. Greta Thunberg was fifteen when she started her climate change campaigns. Adults were stunned by her perception of the climate problem and her dedication. It seems rather unreasonable that such a person not be permitted to vote.

When we check out, the young will be taking over. Considering the mess we’ve left them, it is reasonably to be hoped that early experience voting will improve their perspectives, judgments and abilities.

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