Don’t drop the voting age

Extending franchise to 16-year-olds won’t create ‘culture of engagement’

Imagine a world where provincial election campaigns are blithe to promises of tax reform or health care amendments. In this fantasyland, the Liberals are running on a strong platform of increased Justin Bieber performances, while the Conservatives are trailing with their “More School Dances” five-year-plan. The NDP’s “We’ll Talk to your Mom about Extending your Curfew” promise, however, hasn’t really taken off.

A disturbing thought experiment? Thank B.C. Liberal leadership candidate Mike de Jong who has come out saying that 16-year-olds should be able to vote in provincial elections. De Jong has said that we need to create a “culture of engagement” by getting young people to the polls earlier, and that means lowering the voting age. The move, according to de Jong, would also help tackle poor voter turnout numbers.

Handing out free popsicles at polling stations would likely also improve turnout, though I don’t think that recommendation will receive support from some Liberal frontrunners as de Jong’s did.

Of course, it is by no means breaking news that the 18-24 age group is underrepresented at the polls. The reason often comes down to chicken-or-egg explanations; young eligible voters don’t vote because they feel disenfranchised by politicians who ignore their interests, or—inversely—politicians don’t lobby for the youth vote because they show poorly at the polls. Whatever the case, lowering the voting age ignores the root cause (a Band-Aid solution, you say? Naw, it couldn’t be!). While extending the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds would spectacularly increase turnout in the newly-formed “Under 18” category, the relative numbers will be just as abysmal as for those aged 18-24. In fact, they would probably be worse. Statistics show that voter turnout increases with age, even within the 18-24 category. So if those trends are any indication, 16-year-olds would likely have the worst showing of all.

But let’s say, by some stroke of luck or bribery from their parents, these kids did show up to the polls. What would the implications be? Maclean’s columnist Colby Cosh argues that there is “no substitute for living through history.” “The older I get,” he writes, “the less qualified I feel to have secure opinions about horserace politics.” And indeed, Cosh has a point. With few more than 14 years out of diapers, the newly-authorized voters would have little life experience from which to draw political conclusions or cast an informed vote. On the other hand though, being uninformed does not negate one’s right to vote. Even when individuals are back in diapers, they can still cast a ballot, despite their perhaps eroding reasoning abilities. Of course, not all 90-year-olds have lost their wits, whereas no 16-year-old can remember, for example, the tax-happy premier that hijacked the province two terms ago.

Perhaps more problematic with a teeny-bopper electorate is its vulnerability to pressure. There have been countless studies affirming just how susceptible high school students are to outside influence– and just count the number of Canada Goose brand winter jackets you see on teens next time you’re in a mall if you have any doubts. Imagine, then, the political power of a homeroom high school teacher. Or the cool kids in class who happen to be voting NDP. Or Conservative mom promising a Canada Goose parka! When you’re 16 years old and thirsting for affirmation, you’ll get it in any way you can. Politics would become an even dirtier game.

Lastly, it’s important to note that most 16-year-olds have never shopped for a daycare facility for their children. The fortunate majority has never set foot in a palliative care unit, nor waited weeks to see a specialist. Few have tried to start a business, or even paid taxes, for that matter. Sixteen-year-olds should not be voting on that in which they have little stake, particularly during those formative years when “relativism” is just a word on an English pop quiz.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.