In the 2004 federal general election, voter turnout at 60.9 per cent was the lowest in history. This declining turnout mirrors the trend in other countries, and is a reflection of changing demographics. Voter turnout decreases among younger electors.
This trend will continue as the population ages unless something is done to reverse it. Those who become active voters usually continue to vote throughout life. Conversely, those who don’t vote when they are young often don’t develop voting habits in later years. Encouraging youth to participate when they are still in school and taking civics classes should help to develop voting habits that will stay with them throughout life.
Many young people believe that politics is not relevant to them because politicians ignore youth. This disillusionment leads them not to bother voting, which in turn makes them a marginal influence on politics. This is sometimes referred to as a “cycle of neglect.”
About 2.6 million Canadians, 12 per cent of the population, are aged 18-24. By expanding the youth cohort of voters to include 16 and 17 year olds, they will have greater collective influence. Politicians will be then pay more attention to youth, making politics more relevant to them. This should help to develop a “cycle of participation.”
Society already entrusts 16 and 17 year olds with other important responsibilities – some potentially involving life or death. At 16, one can drive a car, drop out of school, or be tried in court as an adult. At 16 one can join the Canadian Forces Reserves, and at 17 one can join the Canadian Forces and die for Canada. That a young person can be sent to war, but not vote for his or her local Member of Parliament is an aberration.
Canadian political parties allow membership and voting rights at age 14. This means that a young person can play a role in choosing the Prime Minister or Party Leader in a party leadership contest, but cannot choose a candidate in a general election.
Many 16 year olds work and pay taxes, yet they have no say in choosing a government that sets taxation levels and chooses how tax dollars are spent.
In today’s age of mass media, young people are typically as well informed or better informed than their elders. MPs visiting high schools often find their audiences ask more knowledgeable questions and give more thoughtful opinions than do forums of older people. This refutes the tired argument that 16 year olds lack the knowledge or maturity to vote.
In any case, voting is a right based on citizenship – not on knowledge or capacity. There is no knowledge or means test. A mentally ill or uneducated adult is not denied the right to vote. The idea that voting should be restricted to those possessing particular knowledge is an elitist, undemocratic and dangerous notion.
Eighteen is an awkward age for people to begin exercising voting rights because it is an age of transition. Many 18 year olds are leaving home for the first time, starting university, or beginning new jobs. Moving to a new riding often discourages people from voting because they may not know the candidates, the issues, or how to be registered to vote. At 16, most young people are more settled, living at home with their families, and going to high school. This is a more stable environment in which to first exercise the right to vote.