The voting age: should it be raised to 50?

Makes about as much sense as lowering it to 16

Does B.C. Liberal leadership candidate Mike de Jong think you should take Drano for heartburn? Does he think the Canucks would win more often if the Sedins were traded for magic beans? Anything’s possible. Literally anything.

B.C. teenagers should be able to vote in provincial elections when they are old enough to drive, Liberal leadership candidate Mike de Jong said Wednesday.

De Jong said if elected premier he would introduce legislation to lower the voting age to 16 from 18 in an attempt to interest teenagers in the democratic process before they graduate high school.

“What happens now is Grade 12 students leave and the vast majority of them never vote, or if they do, they are 40 or 50 by the time they get around to it,” he said.

Lowering the voting age could also help boost low voter turnout, he said. Only 51 per cent of 3.24 million eligible voters cast ballots in the 2009 B.C. election, down from 58 per cent in 2005 and 55 per cent in 2001.

The most natural next sentence, you’d think, would mention that the figure was a miserable 27% with the youngest voters, those aged 18-24. Numbers from the last couple of federal elections suggest that even within that 18-24 cohort, younger voters are less interested in voting; in the ’06 election, eligible voters aged 18-19½ (many still in high school) turned out less than voters aged 19½-21½, and those voters, in turn, were less likely to show up than voters aged 21½-24.

You’ll notice that those figures are irreconcilable with de Jong’s just-so story of eager schoolchildren instantly losing interest in voting when we open the gates and turn them loose for the last time. But who’d buy that anyway? Kids who leave high school either take up post-secondary education, and enter the most politically engaged space they’re likely to occupy in their entire lives, or they start earning paycheques—a moment at which government policy becomes frighteningly real, as if a monster in a children’s book had suddenly leapt off the page and started devouring the furniture.

De Jong is proposing a “solution” that helped cause the problem he is addressing: the Western world already essentially made a collective decision to sacrifice voter turnout on the altar of youth when it lowered voting ages to 18. It’s not clear why higher turnout ought to be considered a virtue in itself, but if it is, then that’s the dumbest move we could possibly have made. As André Blais observed in 2006, it’s hard to pin down the variables that influence turnout, but the effect of adding young voters in the ’60s and ’70s is pretty much the most unambiguous factor of all:

It is a well-established fact that the propensity to vote increases with age (Wolfinger & Rosenstone 1980, Blais 2000), and so we would expect turnout to be lower when the voting age is 18 instead of 21. Research that examines turnout in contemporary advanced democracies does not incorporate that variable for the simple reason that the voting age is now 18 almost everywhere (Massicotte et al. 2004), and there is thus no variation.

Blais & Dobrzynska (1998), whose sample of elections starts in the 1970s, do include a voting age variable and they find a relatively strong effect; their results suggest that lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 reduces turnout by five points. Voting age is also a key factor in Franklin’s (2004) study of turnout dynamics. He estimates that the lowering of the voting age in most democracies has produced a turnout decline of about three percentage points.

Leaving aside the Mike de Jong-bashing for a moment, what hardly anybody ever asks when discussing turnout is whether it might be rational for young people not to vote. An economist, after all, would start with the presumption that since they don’t, it must in some sense be rational for them not to. Political reporters and columnists, unless their names rhyme with Bandrew Boyne, do not tend to take an economist’s attitude toward social questions; but I would argue that these people have the strongest reasons of all to suspect that young people are right to re-enter the voting pool one toe at a time.

I was first put on a political beat at the age of 24 or 25. I had an education and plenty of information, but I was still at sea nine-tenths of the time, simply because I had only followed electoral politics for about seven or eight years (since the federal election of 1988, really). I didn’t know the personalities; I hadn’t amassed a store of anecdotes, tall tales, and gossip; I had no personal memory of what had been tried and untried, what policies and political strategies had a tendency to work or not to work, what promises are almost certain to be broken. I hadn’t been surprised a hundred times and just plain gotten things wrong another hundred.

There is no substitute for living through history. The older I get, the more I notice how much of my wisdom comes from simply having hung around a while and watching old friends climb the ladders of power and wealth. And the older I get, the less qualified I feel to have secure opinions about horserace politics, even though my profession requires me to feign omniscience. I defy you to find any political journalist who doesn’t feel the same way.

In this case, what’s true of an occasional political feuilletonist must surely be true of the ordinary citizen, who is (presumably) absorbing practical political knowledge even more passively, slowly, and intuitively. And if the vote is important primarily as a sign of humanity, or of being bound by the social contract, then there can be no argument for any voting-age limits; let’s have Fisher-Price design a ballot interface for infants. How could de Jong possibly object? What could he possibly say, even now, to some other thumbsucking pseudo-innovator who made the argument that the limit really ought to be 15?

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