One of the fundamental issues that motivated me to get into politics was that in my view, far too many of our political leaders are shortsighted in their decision-making. That is, too often political opportunism and the quest for re-election are the determining factors and primary motivators in a prevailing short-sighted and short-term political agenda. But that does not serve society well in the long run.
Let me give you three concrete examples.
To summarize, most of the grand challenges of our time require decision-makers to look beyond the next election cycle and instead reflect upon the long-term consequences of their decisions. Dealing with poverty, homelessness and the increasing income disparity between the wealthy and the poor, or sustainable resource development, global warming and other environmental issues, or envisioning ways and means of moving towards more steady-state, diversified economies that aren’t subject to wild boom and bust cycles all require us to reflect upon the importance of intergenerational equity. This leads me to pose the following question:
Should the present generation also consider future generations in
the fiscal, social and environmental decisions we make?
I happen to think we do.
Yet herein lies the fundamental problem. Today’s decision-makers don’t have to live the long-term consequences of the decisions they make and those who do are either not allowed to, or are not participating in, our democratic institutions.
As shown in the figure above, upwards of 70% of seniors over the age of 65 have voted in our recent federal elections. Only around 40% of youth between the ages of 18-24 voted (age-related demographic data likely won’t be available until May for the 2015 federal election). Is it any surprise that many of our political leaders target their promises and messaging to a demographic that they know will vote. I’d wager that when the results become available, we’ll see that the youth participation rose in the 2015 election as it was clear that Prime Minister Trudeau and his Liberal team were discussing values that mattered to the youth of today.
The voting age was not always 18 in British Columbia and Canada. In fact, it wasn’t until 1970 that the Canada Elections Act was amended to drop the voting age from 21 to 18. In British Columbia we made the jump in two steps. First, in 1952 we dropped the voting age from 21 to 19, but it wasn’t until 1992 that we made the subsequent change to lower the age to 18.
Around the world more and more jurisdictions are openly discussing the notion of dropping the voting age to 16. In fact, a growing number have actually done so. The most recent and notable example of this occurred in Scotland.
Scotland experimented by lowering the voting age in their September 18, 2014 independence referendum. They viewed it as being so successful that they subsequently permanently dropped the voting age to 16 in all future Scottish Parliament and local government elections.
The voting age in Brazil has been 16 since 1988; Austria changed its voting age to 16 in 2007; Argentina dropped the voting age to 16 in 2012. These are but a few of the growing number of jurisdictions that are either considering or already have dropped the voting age to 16 around the world.
As I noted above, there has been a disturbing trend of low youth voter turnout in Canadian elections. The non-profit US-based NGO Fair Vote has noted that there is empirical evidence to suggest that “the earlier in life a voter casts their first ballot, the more likely they are to develop voting as a habit.” So while youth turnout might remain low, there is evidence to suggest that there will be increased participation. What’s more, each and every student in the province of British Columbia is required to take Social Studies 11 (or Civic Studies 11 or BC First Nation Studies 12) to fulfill their Social Studies graduation requirement. Unit 1 of the four-unit Social Studies curriculum in the 2005 Integrated Resource package is Politics and Government. While not yet finalized, Politics and Government remains as Unit 1 in the draft 2015 Integrated Resource package.
Social Studies 11 is a class taken when students are typically sixteen years old. It is an ideal time to engage students on the history and importance of voting. And this sort of experiential learning, wherein direct experience is inserted into the learning environment, has a rich history of validation since the early work of John Dewey in the 1930s. So giving students the ability to vote at the time they are learning about its importance, and knowing that the earlier a voter casts a first ballot, the more likely they are to be lifelong voter, almost certainly will lead to greater voter participation.
As I noted earlier, today’s decision-makers don’t have to live the long-term consequences of the decisions they make and those who do are either not allowed to or are not participating in our democratic institutions. We can do something about the former by reducing the voter age to 16. After all, the youth of day are the leaders of tomorrow and they should have a say in the direction we are heading as they will inherit what we leave them in the years ahead.
Having spent many years as an educator and having presented to, or engaged in discussions with, high school students and classes across British Columbia on numerous occasions, I find it difficult to accept an argument that students are not mature enough of informed enough at age 16 to vote. Students today have access to information like never before; they are tech savvy and they know where to go to get information if they need it.
And of course, there are numerous other arguments, one of the strongest of which is that many youth work and so pay taxes. Taxation without representation is generally counter to our democratic principles. That is, youth must pay the taxes but they are not allowed to vote for those who put in place laws that create them. Other compelling reasons include the fact that we already trust youth to drive at 16, they can get married at 16 (with parents’ permission) and you can drop out of school at 16. These are all pretty major life responsibilities that are entrusted upon our youth.
So tell me what you think? Should we lower the voter age to 16 in the province of British Columbia? There is a trend happening worldwide in the area. Should we lead the way or not? And if not, why not? If so, why?
March 15, 2017