The case for lowering the voting age in B.C.

It’s no wonder the campaign is picking up momentum in B.C. and around the world.

Originally published on the blog Sowing Seeds of Change.

My name is Katia Bannister. I am an organizer with Dogwood’s #Vote16BC campaign. The goal of the campaign is to lower the voting age to 16 years old in British Columbia. Why? Because decisions made today will affect us most — the youth who will inherit the world of tomorrow. We should have a say in the decisions that will affect the quality of our collective future.

The idea to lower the voting age to 16 in Canada is not a new one. Campaigns have been run across the country. And B.C. has a history of being a leader in progressive voting rights — British Columbia made headlines in the 1950s when our province led the rest of Canada in lowering the voting age from 21 to 19. In 1992, the voting age was lowered again to 18.

Campaigns to lower the voting age have been around for decades, and not just in Canada. Many countries around the world have already lowered the voting age to 16, including Cuba, Austria, Scotland, Ecuador and Argentina.

Argentina lowered the voting age from 18 to 16 in 2012. Scotland did the same in 2015. Ecuador gives 16 and 17 year olds the option to vote. Some countries, like Sudan, have lowered the voting age to 17 and others have lowered the voting age to 16 under special stipulations, like being married or employed.

The results of lowering the voting age in these countries? Immensely positive.

What does lowering the voting age do to voter turnout?

Lowering the voting age to 16 is proven to increase voter turnout and develop lifelong voting habits. Studies in the United States have shown an individual who votes in one election has a higher chance of voting in a future election. These studies have also proven people who participate in elections when they first reach the voting age are more likely to develop the habit of voting and become lifelong voters.

Sixteen year olds are often equally knowledgeable about civics and politics and have the same ability to make good voting choices as older voters. Interestingly, it is not only 16 year olds who are commonly developmentally ready to vote. Research has shown the “cold cognition” skills used to make the kind of informed choices needed in voting are not only solidly established in 16 year olds, but in individuals as young as 12 years old.

Sixteen year olds would actually have an advantage when it comes to voter education. Most 16 year olds are actively learning about government and civics in high school. In addition, teachers and parents would be able to help 16 year olds overcome common obstacles for first time voters, such as finding their polling places and the registration process. This is in contrast to 18 year olds, who have newly acquired the right to vote but are entering a transition time in their lives and may find it difficult to actually get to the polls.

Not only would adult voters have a positive effect on adolescent voters, but lowering the voting age has the potential to increase the turnout of older voting demographics. Involving young people in the voting process might result in a “trickle up” effect that motivates their parents and other adults in their lives to vote, increasing overall voter turnout. Parents with children living at home who can vote are up to four per cent more likely to turn out to vote themselves.

So we can already see some benefits of lowering the voting age to 16, but do 16 year olds really deserve the right to vote?

Teenagers, some younger than 16, have adult responsibilities, but are regularly denied equivalent “adult” rights. Many people under the age of 18 have to take on “adult” responsibilities such as managing a business, or being primary caregiver for a family member, and making large financial contributions to their households. Not only do many 16 year olds make “adult” contributions to their family, but also to their communities and countries. Millions of 16 year olds are employed or volunteer in their communities — many are married or have joined the military.

Furthermore, almost every 16 year old will have to pay some form of taxes. Sixteen year olds alone contribute to millions of dollars in taxpayer money, but have no representation on how that money is spent. This “taxation without representation” should be no more tolerable in relation to teenagers than it was for any other historic demographic.

Despite not having a say in its creation, young people are expected to follow the law, facing “adult” consequences if they fail to comply. In the criminal justice system, many 16 and 17 year olds are tried, sentenced or incarcerated as adults. This demonstrates that not only does society expect young people to be able to discern “right from wrong” and the consequences for breaking laws, but also expects that people under the age of 18 will be able to navigate the adult legal system and are mature enough to be placed in adult prisons. It is hypocritical to tell young people they are responsible adults when they have committed a crime, but naive and ignorant when they campaign for the right to vote.

In addition to all the above, teenagers are capable of amazing intelligence and creativity. Youth under the age of 18 have reached the summit of Mount Everest, won Nobel Prizes, conducted cancer research, published books and worked for NASA. If young people are capable of such astounding feats, surely they have the capacity to vote for candidates that best represent the issues that are important to them.

So, how does lowering the voting age actually benefit youth?

Youth are entering politics despite not being able to vote. Sixteen year olds, and even younger people, are organizing protests, forming youth-led political groups, and using social media to involve themselves politically and express their political opinions. Some are even involved with the campaigning of political parties, despite not being able to vote for the parties they support. Some British Columbian political parties allow young people to join their parties and vote for leaders and on their platform — BCNDP members can be 16 years old, whereas the Green Party of BC and the BC Liberals allow members as young as fourteen years old.

Lowering the voting age will significantly improve the lives of youth. Young people have a right to be heard and to have their interests considered and taken seriously. However, through the disenfranchisement of young people, society has sent a message to everyone that says youth do not have anything of value to add to the political conversations in our society. It also gives politicians the opportunity to ignore the interests of youth because without voting power, these individuals have no means of holding their representatives accountable.

This is concerning because issues like public education policy, environmental destruction and long-term government debt impact younger generations greater than anyone else. But since young people are woefully underrepresented in politics, the issues affecting them are underrepresented as well.

So how does lowering the voting age connect to climate action?

Climate change is one of the greatest issues of our time and it disproportionately affects young people. Lowering the vote age provides an opportunity for 16 and 17 year olds to have their voices heard and opinions considered on things like climate policy and environmental law, which will play a huge role in dictating their climate future.

In the last year, youth have led a resilient push for climate action through the climate strike movement started by Greta Thunberg. Many youth climate organizers and activists believe in lowering the voting age because it will help elevate their voices and the voices of other youth on the issues of climate action and justice. The commitments of youth to organizing and campaigning for climate justice is only one of the many examples of youth rising up to create change on issues they otherwise would’ve been unable to. Thus lowering the voting age to 16 will create another platform for youth to add their voice to a call for climate action that our world desperately needs.

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