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How Old Is Old Enough? The case for younger Canadian voters

By Zuhair Ahmad

Canada should lower the federal voting age to 16 because many of the key issues we are facing today — climate change, environmental degradation, the COVID-19 pandemic, and social and racial justice — will have serious consequences for young Canadians in the future.

In the past, voting was seen as a privilege, which meant that certain groups in the population were not allowed to vote. Now almost all Canadian citizens over the age of 18 have the right to vote. 21 was the “age of majority” for most of Canada’s history because that’s when a person was considered mature enough to participate in the democratic process. The federal voting age continued to be 21 well into the late 1960s. A series of bills proposing legislation were eventually introduced in 1969, and the voting age was eventually lowered to 18 in 1970.

The right to vote is supported by constitutional law. The Supreme Court’s January 2019 decision in Frank v. Canada reaffirmed voting as a fundamental political right, which cannot be limited without a compelling justification. The court found that the limit placed on voting violated Section 3 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — which says “every citizen” has the right to vote. The Supreme Court wrote “since voting is a fundamental political right, and the right to vote is a core tenet of Canadian democracy, any limit on the right to vote must be scrutinized and cannot be tolerated without a compelling justification.

More and more young Canadians are appealing the federal age to vote by deeming it unconstitutional. In Canada, the federal NDP and Green Party publicly support a younger voting age. The federal Conservative, NDP and Liberal parties already allow members as young as 14 to vote in leadership contests.

Several countries, such as Belgium, Brazil, and Austria, have already lowered their voting ages to 16. Research shows that jurisdictions that have introduced under-18 voting have had a positive impact in terms of political engagement and civic attitudes amongst young adult voters. The current voting age does not align with the minimum age of many other activities that require maturity and judgment, such as driving, joining the military and getting a job.

From March to April 2020, Children First Canada led a national consultation to better understand how young Canadians felt about lowering the voting age. A total of 180 children and youth from across Canada provided their feedback on a range of issues related to the right to vote. 58% of youth agreed that the federal voting age should be lowered to 16 in Canada.

The current voting age aligns with the time that adolescence naturally ends. This is usually when teenagers are graduating high school and leaving home for the first time. Before then, many feel that teenagers should be focusing on education, friends, and after school activities – not getting involved with politics. Teenagers at 16 are unsure about their personal values, political or otherwise. Teenagers are also more likely to be pressured or influenced by those around them.

Some might argue that people under the age of 18 lack knowledge about policies and democracy to make informed decisions. However, adult voters are not necessarily more informed about policy issues than young people when making political choices. Anyway, lowering the federal voting age would probably not change election outcomes. Demographics show that young people below the age of 17 are a much smaller population compared to those in the over 25 age group.

If the federal voting age were be lowered to 16 in Canada, we could combat concerns by first lowering the municipal age to vote in order to gauge the interest and turnout. Or we could require students to pass their civics education course to be eligible to vote. But imagine the potential depletion of the voting lists if all citizens were required to pass a similar course.

Voting rights in Canada have changed over time to become more inclusive. Challenging the federal age to vote could be the next step in expanding and strengthening our democracy.