When it comes to voting, the kids are all right

Earlier this year, Don Davies, an NDP Member of Parliament from British Columbia, quietly introduced a bill to reduce the voting age in Canada from 18 to 16. Actually, this is the third time he’s introduced the bill to a new session of Parliament, and hopefully this one’s the charm. At the very least, I think it’s time we give the proposal its due consideration.

In 2005, the idea made it past a first reading and to some discussion of essentially the same bill, brought forward by Liberal MP Mark Holland, who’s back in the house now following Chris Alexander’s four-year stint as his seat filler in Ajax-Pickering. The question is this: Will Holland, who happens to also be the Parliamentary Secretary for Democratic Institutions now, and his fellow Liberal MPs support the bill, or is it doomed to remain an opposition pet project for eternity?

In 2005, there was no recorded vote, but it was also championed in debate by several other Liberal and NDP members who are still in the House of Commons, including Navdeep Bains, the current minister of innovation. Minds do sometimes change, but I hope those supporters will help move Davies’ bill forward now.

While the idea of multi-partisan support for the bill might seem unlikely, around the globe it’s proving not to be. In Austria, which became the first European Union nation to give 16-year-old citizens the vote, the major squabble in the legislature was over which party came up with it first. I could watch the Liberals and NDP duke that one out.

The main argument for decreasing the voting age is that by crafting practical curriculum around a real election decision and putting polling stations in schools, we can help students form the habit of voting. It would also prevent adults from entering the world with no idea how to vote. Which I’m, um, mentioning for a friend.

It’s a bit hard to tell whether the “start ‘em young” theory pans out. Brazilian sixteen year olds have been voting since 1988, but voting is mandatory at 18, so their voter turnout pattern doesn’t resemble Canada’s. Other countries, like Austria and Scotland, have only recently lowered the voting age, so there’s no rich, historical data yet.

But a University of Vienna study in Austria has already disputed a major criticism of young voters—that they don’t vote, or don’t vote well, because they’re disenfranchised. It found that while 16 and 17 year olds weren’t as knowledgeable as older voters, they had the most trust in institutions, and were the most willing to participate in a range of civic activities outside of elections. “Citizens just over 18 appear to be substantively influenced by their lacking ability and motivation to vote,” the study concludes, “but not citizens just under 18.”

Now, I know one study based on one election in one country doesn’t seal the deal. But it tells me the discussion has merit. There may indeed be an opportunity in those two years between Sweet 16 and graduation to turn interested young people into lifelong voters before their enthusiasm wanes.

I hope the Liberals will move Davies’ bill forward, and put our collective money where their mouths were 10 years ago. I don’t know whether giving 16 year olds the vote will change the world. I do know we’ll lose nothing by talking about it.

Originally published in Our London on March 24, 2016.