Canada’s New Democratic Party Wants to Lower the Voting Age

Fearing the Left will sweep up the youth vote, conservatives have long opposed lowering the voting age — the worst possible rationale for refusing to expand the franchise.

Research indicates that 16-year-olds are up to the task of democratic engagement. (Getty Images)

In Canada, the House of Commons is debating a private member’s bill by a New Democratic Party (NDP) member of Parliament that would lower the voting age to sixteen. In fact, there are two such bills before the House right now and one in the Senate. There have been similar bills in the past offered by Liberals and New Democrats alike. All told, these bills number nearly a dozen. The bill ought to become law. It’s well past time.

In December, on the occasion of a legal challenge against the federal voting age, Aaron Wherry wrote a defense of lowering the voting age to sixteen for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He dispatched with the usual, tired counterarguments and offered a suite of reasons for making the change. Research indicates that the cognitive capacities of sixteen-year-olds are up to the task of democratic engagement. Furthermore, studies have shown that the civic knowledge of those at sixteen years of age is commensurate with that of eighteen-year-olds — the enfranchised age cohort immediately upstream.

As Wherry and others note, young people have the most at stake in the future of the country, especially given the existential threat of climate change. The current age of eighteen is arbitrary; you can do plenty at sixteen already, including leaving home, driving a car, taking a job, and dropping out of school. More than a dozen countries already allow folks to vote at sixteen, and they’ve yet to descend into a tableau reminiscent of the more chilling bits of a Hieronymus Bosch triptych.

Defenses of voting at sixteen are common in the mainstream media and outside of it, popping up in Vox, Policy Note, the Conversation, the Toronto Star, and elsewhere. Academic research supports the position. For instance, a 2012 scholarly paper in Electoral Studies found that

while the turnout levels of young people under 18 are relatively low, their failure to vote cannot be explained by a lower ability or motivation to participate. In addition, the quality of these citizens’ choices is similar to that of older voters, so they do cast votes in ways that enable their interests to be represented equally well.

Other studies have shown similar findings, though a counterargument in Political Studies contends that young people are not sufficiently mature to be trusted with the vote. The paper is not compelling — it’s myopic and patronizing. Its standard for a “just and efficient” minimum voting age is based on setting criteria for competence that raise disturbing implications — such as upper-age limits on voting.

Because the evidence against a lower voting age is weak, the evidence-based arguments against lowering the voting age are also weak. Political opposition to lowering the voting age is more interesting, albeit nakedly cynical. This opposition seems to take three forms: path dependency (“eighteen-plus is what we do now”), priority (“maybe it’s a good idea, but we have bigger things to deal with”), and unvarnished partisan complaining (“younger voters will vote for left parties and that’s unfair”). Each of these reasons is antidemocratic. Voting is, of course, the cardinal democratic right. In spite of the criticisms that can be leveled at the electoral system, it nevertheless shapes the politics, policies, and priorities of states, and thus our individual and collective lives.

“This is how we do it” is never an acceptable defense of anything. In fact, it’s not an acceptable argument at all. It is the logical fallacy known as “appeal to tradition,” and its basic assertion is that whatever is being argued is acceptable because it’s always been acceptable. This argument is often wielded by people who are very content with the existing state of affairs.

Some people are served well by the status quo — and they are not motivated to change it. Indeed, beneficiaries of the status quo will act to ensure its protection. If the youth vote is understood to shape policy and elector outcomes in a particular way, preventing its implementation has a de facto gerrymandering effect avant la lettre. We’ve seen what the effects of voter suppression look like. It’s not pretty.

Priorities reveal values. De-prioritizing lowering the voting age because of other pressing concerns betrays a comfort with the status quo. Those who do fear that prioritizing a lower voting age will upset the politics of the day and, dear me, might even produce different policy priorities and outcomes.

The partisan whining about a lower voting age benefiting the Left — based on the assumption that younger citizens are more likely to support left-leaning parties — completes and underpins this entire cynical, self-interested trifecta. It’s irrelevant whether the idea that the addition of a younger voting cohort would redound to left-wing electoral gains is true. Decisions around who ought to be permitted to vote and when should have nothing to do with expected partisan advantage or disadvantage. Rights exist and must be recognized and supported independent of partisan self-interest.

In a free and democratic society, one needs to be given a reason not to do something. The onus is not on the individual to make the case as to why one ought to be permitted to exercise a right, fulfill a duty, or pursue an interest. Rather, the onus is on the state to make the case why one should be prevented from doing so. In the case of voting at the age of sixteen, there is no compelling reason to uphold a prohibition that seems arbitrary, cynical, and contrary to evidence — or at least lacking evidence strong enough to support denying young folks access to a fundamental right. Moreover, while the reasons for permitting a younger voting age are compelling, they are incidental to the fact that, when it comes to permitting voting at age sixteen, the only reason one needs is that there is no good reason against it.

The Parliament of Canada ought to lower the voting age to sixteen and be done with it. Provinces and municipalities ought to follow them. The discussion, decades old, needs to be terminated in order to satisfy a fundamental democratic right that should be extended to as many people as possible.