With a petition on the House of Commons website and the submission of a written brief to the Special Committee on Electoral Reform, the French Canadian Youth Federation hopes to convince politicians to lower the legal voting age.
With the ongoing activities of the House of Commons Special Committee on Electoral Reform, the French Canadian Youth Association, also known as la Fédération de la jeunesse canadienne-française (FJCF), is pushing at the federal level what its New Brunswick chapter pushed for many years provincially: lowering the legal voting age from 18 to 16. This would require the Government of Canada to modify Article 3 of the Canada Elections Act, which sets the minimum age to be a voter. The group also recommends the federal government work with its provincial and territorial partners to create a civic education program in high schools for the students prior to their first federal voting experience. As of Nov. 10, 308 people had signed the petition.
The idea to push the issue at the federal level came from the last Pan-Canadian forum of the organization, held in 2015, when the youth identified key priorities for the French-Canadian youth, explains the president of the association Justin Johnson.
This association is not the only one to push in this direction. NDP MP Don Davies of Vancouver Kingsway introduced a private member’s bill (C-213) on Jan. 28, which would amend the Canada Elections Act. This is the third time Davies has introduced the bill. Davies says he first got the idea after the 2008 election, when only 58.8 per cent of registered voters cast a ballot. It was the lowest turnout in Canada history.
“It got me thinking how we can engage our citizens in a more democratic way and get them interested in our election,” says Davies. “At the same time, I spent time with high school students, and I was very impressed with these people’s interests and ideas. So, why are we preventing young Canadians from having their say on the government they want?”
Student Josh Robillard thinks 16-year-old such as himself should be able to participate in democratic processes that influence policy-making that affect students. He said 16-year-old are entrusted the safety of others on the roads, responsability that should be extended to civic engagement.
Davies also advocates for a good civic curriculum in Canadian schools, in combination with lowering the voting age to “improve the states of our democracy and to be a more democratic country.”
The previous bill didn’t pass as the process stop at second reading. The Conservative government had “absolutely no plans to lower the voting age ,” mentioned the former Minister of State for Democratic Reform, Stephen Fletcher. Currently, the bill C-213 passed the first reading.
Here are four key reasons why voting age should be lowered to 16.
1) It might encourage a higher voter turnout
Young voters aged 18 to 24 have the lowest participation rate of any age group, says Anna Esselment, professor of political science at Waterloo University. “The 16- and 17-year-olds have a higher level of voting turnout in countries where the vote at 16 is allowed” she says, referring to electoral statistics from Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Ecuador and Nicaragua, where people can start voting at the age of 16. According to the Swedish-based Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, Brazil and Austria has a voter turnout of 80 per cent. In Brazil, voting is mandatory between the ages of 18 and 69 years, but people aged of 16 and 17 can choose to cast a ballot or not.
“They live at home so their parents could drive them to the poll. They are easier to catch because they are far less mobile than the 18 to 24 (group), who attend universities in other cities.”
The former chief electoral officer of Elections Canada, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, also thinks it would benefit the electoral system if young voters could have the chance to participate while they are at school.
“There would be awareness raised on the importance of voting, because it would be based on the reality,” he says. He adds, that the electoral simulations held in high schools, run in parallel to the real election, bring positive participation results.
However, according to Carleton University political science professor Jon Pammett there is no guarantee those numbers will transfer in the reality and that it will increase the voting turnout. In fact, he thinks that lowering the voting age could negatively impact the voting turnout rates, that are already low. The decline in voter turnout in Canada is due to lower participation of young people. Lowering the voting age, would accentuate this trend.
2) Young people would adopt the habit of voting
The experts interviewed are unanimous: If the voting age is lowered to 16, in combination with efficient civic education, young people will take the habit of voting for the rest of their life.
“When you vote at your very first election that you are eligible there is likelihood that you’ll continue to do that. It’s possible to capture young Canadians into voting at a younger age and they stay as voters,” says Esselment. Pammett says that if the young people don’t start at their first eligible election, and miss few opportunities to cast their votes, the chances are less that they’ll pick up the habit later on.
A study conducted by Jon Pammett and Lawrence LeDuc, a professor of politcal science at University of Toronto, had shown that about 26.6 percent of non-voters in the 2000 election were “very likely” to vote in the next election. Meanwhile, 87.2 percent of the 2000 voters were “very likely” to cast a ballot in the next election.
3) Expand the notion of democracy
“At the very core of our democracy, we want our representatives to be very inclusive and more citizens to take part in the process,” says Esselment, as the OECD countries’ voting turnout continues to fall.
Don Davies agrees with that notion of democracy expansion. He said that the 16-year-olds are taxed when they work but they don’t have their say on how the tax-dollars are spent, referring to the American revolution slogan: “No taxation without representation.” He would like to see young people have a voice in our democratic system.
4) The teenagers of today are engaged in their world and want to make a difference
Kingsley and Davies talked about a generation that is connected to what is happening in the world, and that they are better informed than the previous generation. Moreover, young people today are “not jaded by cynicism. They are optimistic about the future. They look on the world with hope and bright eyes,” says the Vancouver-Kingsway MP.
Justin Johnson believes that youth have the right to participate in the democratic system for the common good, and being heard by politicians. “The young people of 16 years old have the will to act for the benefit of the family, the community, the province or the country. They are able to fully participate for the common good,” he says, adding that a good idea if it comes from a 16-year-old or a senior, is still a good idea.
Not a priority at the moment
With the recommendation of the Special Committee on Electoral Reform expected on Dec. 1, there isn’t much optimism around the idea of lower the voting age.
“At the moment there is no ground support for that in Canada. We have to grapple what we will do of our electoral system first,” says Esselment. Kingsley said the Committee is dealing with too many other issues to consider lowering the voting age right away. “What will be done with the voting sytem? Should the vote be mandatory? Should we have electronic voting? All this creates a heavy program. The debate on lowering the voting age, could easily restart once we know what will be done with the voting system reform. We have to expect all kinds of pitfalls, to some people opposing to the idea,” he predicts.
The French Canadian Youth Federation hopes for a proposition for civic education. “If a recommendation is done on civic education that would be beneficial according to our young members,” says Johnson. The organization promised, no matter what the outcome will be, to continue raising awareness for lowering the voting age to 16.
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