Why and how Canada should lower the voting age to 16
Few today would question the right of 18-year-olds to vote in elections. Until as recently as 1971 however, Canadians younger than 21 years of age were barred from casting a ballot for federal elections. A survey conducted in 1958 also found that 71.6 percent of respondents were opposed to lowering the voting age to 18 from 21. Social norms and attitudes are in a constant state of flux, but decisive shifts in national public opinion often take years, with legislative change acting as a catalyst. In the current context of rapidly falling youth political participation, lowering the voting age to 16 could increase political engagement among youth, strengthen democracy by boosting voter turnout in the long term, and bring youth issues closer to the forefront.
Since the 1980s, a combination of falling participation rates and the fact that younger voters make up a smaller and smaller proportion of voters has meant that the political force of youth is in comparative decline.
Figure 1— Figure prepared by Emmanuel Preville of the Library of Parliament based on Figure 1, “Reported voter turnout in federal elections by age group, 1965–2000,” in Margaret Adsett, “Change in Political Era and Demographic Weight as Explanations of Youth “disenfranchisement” in federal elections.
The 2015 federal election saw a surge in youth participation, and yet, it followed in a larger trend where youth voter turnout has usually been at least 20 percent lower than that of older Canadians.
Figure 2— Graph Generated using Data from Elections Canada on Voter Turnout by Age and Sex
This is particularly worrisome if one considers that young people will increasingly make up a smaller share of the total population. The consequences of youth disengagement are far-reaching. In the short term, governments become less representative and may increasingly favour older voters in their policies. In the long term, low participation rates among today’s young people could pose a considerable threat to the integrity of Canadian democracy. Low voter participation rates drain legitimacy of governments in a vicious spiral in which poor turnout feeds skepticism towards democracy, and vice versa.
Low youth voter turnout is likely equally pronounced at provincial and municipal elections, though age-specific data is scarce. Nonetheless, data from Quebec show similar falling rates of voter turnout in its provincial elections among youth aged 18-34 since 1985.
Figure 3 — Data collected from the report ” Note de recherche sur la participation électorale sur la période 1985-2014″ by the Chaire de Recherche sur la Démocratie et les Institutions Parlementaires
Until recently, a “life cycle effect”, or the idea that young people’s propensity to vote increased as they aged, was used to explain lower turnout rates among youth. Recent studies indicate that this may no longer be the case. Young people are not only participating less than their elders, but their willingness to participate also appears to be declining over time. The result is that Canada’s arguably most educated generation is also increasingly disenchanted with the current political system. Youth are not disengaged with political life per se, but rather that they feel that formal political institutions are failing to listen to their needs.
How lowering the voting age could help
To strengthen Canadian democracy, governments should rebuild young Canadians’ trust in and attachment to formal political institutions and practices. Young people do not get enough exposure to the political process in ways that matter to them. Reducing the voting age to 16 could increase future and current engagement to Canada’s political system by giving young Canadians a meaningful voice at the table at a crucial juncture in their lives. After all, the most visible, and often most meaningful political engagement for most Canadians is casting a ballot. Research shows that voting habits are formed early in life and that those who do not vote early on may never pick up the habit.
Why lower the voting age to 16?
Lowering the voting age to 16 would be no arbitrary choice. From an implementation standpoint, a major advantage is that most 16 and 17-year-olds still reside at home, meaning that voter registration would be similar to that of their parents or could be done at schools. Simultaneously, Canada could bring back the vouching option removed in Bill C-23 to allow teachers and principals to vouch for their students on Election Day.
Lowering the voting age should not be seen as an easy solution but rather as part of a larger initiative in partnership with other levels of government. For instance, provincial governments should introduce and expand class time devoted to civics and political institutions as youth progress though compulsory education. With some creativity and little cost to schools, students could come to see these class discussions as not merely abstract and inconsequential but as having a direct bearing on elections. Election Day could become an exciting day in schools where students see their peers and teachers publicly exercise their right to vote.
Lowering the voting age would send a strong message to youth that their opinions matter and that the electoral system is not stacked against them. Lured by the possibility of obtaining extra votes, political candidates may be tempted to increase their presence at high schools and other spaces frequented by youth. The result could be completely new spaces for political discussion and for youth civic engagement. As parties come to see the potential of speaking to a large and concentrated pool of voters, they may even incorporate more meaningful youth policies in their platforms.
Canada is not alone in its struggle to engage young citizens to vote; it could learn from the experience of other jurisdictions. Austria’s decision to lower the voting age to 16 has yielded some positive results: data from two recent regional elections show that voter turnout among 16-17-year-olds reached levels close to the national turn-out rate.
Lastly, for those who argue that 16-year-olds are not sufficiently experienced or mentally unfit to vote, they should remember that similar arguments were once made against granting women, ethnic minorities and Indigenous people the right to vote in Canada.
Federico Vargas graduated from the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance in 2017 with a Master of Public Policy degree. He previously completed an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations and French at the University of Toronto and holds a certificat d’études politiques from the Institut d’etudes politiques d’Aix-en Provence (Sciences Po Aix). His areas of interest include immigration policy, international trade, education policy, cities and foreign policy.