Should 16-year-old Canadians be allowed to vote? The Parti Québécois thinks so. Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, speaking in London, hinted as much following a quiet meeting in Scotland with First Minister Alex Salmond, whose governing Scottish National Party plans to lower the voting age to 16 for the country’s 2014 referendum on independence.
Members of Marois’ party have indicated their support for lowering the age to 16 in the past, and countries like Austria, Argentina, Ecuador and Brazil have made similar decisions over the years to combat flagging voter turnout. Considering young people are the biggest drag on Canada’s overall decline in turnout, it’s something we should consider nationally too.
Elections Canada reported 38.8 per cent turnout among people age 18 to 24 in the May 2011 federal election, well below the 75.1 per cent of those aged 65 to 74 who voted. Considering the under-25 set is told from the get-go that they’re apathetic, this isn’t surprising. Civics courses don’t help: I drudged through Ontario’s— a well-known online bird course at my high school.
Predictably, Marois’ comments and the Scottish National Party’s intentions have sparked hand-wringing about her partisan motivations and whether 16- and 17-year-olds can be trusted.
Like Scottish youth, young Quebecers have traditionally been strong supporters of secession. Though I’d like to think Marois purely has the democratic process in mind by bringing younger teens into the fold, I do realize the separatist PQ has the most to gain of any party by championing it.
However, the other main criticism is akin to “we might as well let kindergarteners vote.” Being five and 16 is basically the same thing, apparently. If we let them vote, we’d have to let them drink too. (What’s next? Kindergarteners voting drunk?) But maturity isn’t necessarily equivalent to age.
Party youth wings already work with thousands of aspiring politicos as young as 14 across the country. In the last decade the capacity to connect young people to the issues via social media has exploded. When I turned 16 in 2004, tweeting was still a verb referring to the animal kingdom and Facebook hadn’t yet trickled down to high schools. Today, organizations like Apathy is Boring make information needed to vote user-friendly. Teens are much more in-tune than they seem.
Last year’s widespread student protests in Quebec and youth involvement in the ongoing Idle No More movement prove that young people are sharing ideas, participating in protests and talking about the issues—they’re just not allowed to express their opinions in the voting booth.
This can change. Lowering the voting age to 16 would give that generation the chance to have a real say in the society they already participate in. Canadians aged 16 can work (and pay taxes), drive and consent to sex. With parental permission, they can apply to the Canadian Forces at 17.
It’s true that giving the vote to the under-18 set will only be useful if it’s part of a large non-partisan effort to reverse the nasty decline in voting by younger cohorts—but it’s a good place to start.
Jane Switzer holds an English degree from Queen’s University.