Appearing recently before federal Parliamentarians, Canada’s chief electoral officer, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, suggested that lowering the age of voting eligibility from 18 to 16 is an idea with merit. He is right.
Sadly, his views have been largely ignored – save for those opposing him. Some MPs challenged Mr. Kingsley’s right to an opinion on the matter, characterized as political and beyond the purview of his non-partisan office. How strange that the custodian of our electoral processes should have no say on their performance. In any event, an MP asked the question and Mr. Kingsley responded.
The fundamental issue of declining voter turnout goes to the heart of our democracy. Moreover, the frightful lack of inclination to vote on the part of the youngest voters should be of concern to everyone.
Mr. Kingsley’s views reflect reality. In one recent study commissioned by Elections Canada (www.elections.ca) probing the recent decline in voter turnout, one figure stands out: A stunning 77.6 per cent of eligible first-time voters did not bother to do so in the 2000 federal election. The study found that although a variety of factors shape this result, two primary sets of reasons stand out – a lack of interest or apathy, and personal and administrative barriers to participation.
Critics of a lower voting age point to such findings as reason enough to maintain the status quo. For example, in an editorial, The 16-year old non-solution, the Ottawa Citizen argues: “It sounds good in theory, but if the current crop of 18-year olds don’t vote, what reason is there to believe 16-year olds would be any less apathetic?”
Such misguided thinking offers little room for improvement and misses the central point. Eighteen is just too late. Engaging voters when they are younger (but old enough to drive a car, seek employment, foster relationships and engage in intellectual discovery) will make them more likely to develop a meaningful attachment to democracy and its importance earlier, rather than later in life.
But more still must be done. The key challenge at the heart of the youth quandary, and the real cause of disinterest and apathy, is the sense among young people that voting and politics are less about duty and responsibility than about choice. And in an Internet age of markets and individuality on the one hand, and more spontaneous and diverse forms of relationships and communities on the other, politics is often the least appealing choice of all.
Why, then, would reducing the voting age offer positive change? There are two reasons. First, for young Canadians most likely to eventually vote and seek political office, namely those with post-secondary education, the age of 18 is often a time of mobility from one community to another. If voting is not engrained at high school, it is less likely that university and college students will undertake to register and vote soon after leaving home.
More fundamental, however, is the need to engrain a notion of democratic responsibility earlier in life – as a vital complement to other choices and pursuits. Australia understands this need, both imposing mandatory voting requirements on all citizens and lowering their voting age to 16. Other countries will follow suit. If Canada is so cool, as The Economist Magazine recently proclaimed, should we be a leader or a laggard?
Yet 16 and 17-year old Canadians are hardly beating the drums on this issue, which is why more must be done to encourage even younger children to value politics. Many secondary school programs have begun to instil community service and job training components as mechanisms to deepen their engagements in the market and civic sectors respectively. In some cases, such programs are mandatory. Why not democratic service as well?
Democracy relies on a careful balance of rights and responsibilities. As today’s youngest generations thankfully forgo many responsibilities of the past (such as the military – now a choice) new ones must nonetheless be embraced. Thus, offering the choice to 16-year olds is a necessary but insufficient step toward democratic renewal. There must also be a broadened sense of duty and purpose.
This purpose should be less about obligation (as in Australia) and more about interest and appreciation. Does the Internet matter? The movement toward online voting and Web-based politics continues to gather steam: European Union elections this summer will provide further testament. Children are on the net earlier in life. E-voting is just a matter of time: but if offered as merely yet another choice, it will do little to reverse the malaise that ails our democratic culture.
Jeffrey Roy ([email protected]) is an Associate Professor of Public Sector Management & Governance at the University of Ottawa.