I am an organizer with the Vote16BC campaign of British Columbia’s Dogwood Foundation. The goal of Dogwood’s Vote16BC campaign is to lower the voting age to 16 years old and demonstrate to the citizens of the province that youth are becoming engaged and participating in politics, around the world and here in British Columbia. They also want to show that young people are well-educated, compassionate, mature and ready to make a difference in the province. The votes of voters today will greatest affect the youth who will inherit the world of tomorrow, and thus the youth of today should have a say in the decisions that will affect the quality of their collective future.
The idea of lowering the voting age to 16 in parts of Canada is not a new one. Campaigns to lower the voting age have been around for decades, and not just in Canada. Many countries around the world have already even lowered the voting age to 16, among them are Cuba, Austria, Scotland, Ecuador and Argentina.
Argentina lowered the voting age from 18 to 16 in 2012, Scotland did the same in 2015 and Ecuador gives 16 and 17 year-olds and those over 65 the option to vote, while individuals in between the ages of 18-65 are legally required 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 overall voter turnouts?
Lowering the voting age to 16 has been proven to increase voter turnout as well as develop strong voting habits. Studies in the United States have shown that an individual who votes in one election has a thirteen percent chance of voting in future elections, and consequently has a higher chance of becoming an active and engaged voter. These studies have also proven that individuals that participate in elections when they first reach the voting age are more likely to become life-long voters.
16 year-olds are often equally knowledgeable about civics and politics and have the same ability to make good voting choices as older or adult voters. But it is not only 16 year-olds who are developmentally ready to vote, studies have alluded to the “cold cognition” skills used to make the informed choices needed in voting, are not only solidly established in 16 year-olds, but in individuals as young as 12 years-old.
16 year-olds actually have an advantage when it comes to a quality and current voter education. Most 16 year-olds are actively learning about government and civics in high school, and information about politics may come more readily to them because of this. In addition, teachers and parents would be able to help 16 year-olds overcome obstacles for first-time voters that often dissuade youth from voting. Examples of this are the registration process and locating local polling places. This is in contrast to 18 year-olds, who have the right to vote but are entering into a transitional period of their lives, and may find it difficult to take those first steps into the voting world.
Not only could adult voters have a positive effect on adolescent voters, but lowering the voting age could have the potential to increase the turnout of older voting demographics. Involving young people in the voting process and politics can have a “trickle up” effect that mobilizes their parents and other adults in their lives to vote, increasing overall voter turnout and education on political matters.
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 denied the same rights. Many people under the age of 18 have to take on “adult” responsibilities such as managing a business, or the 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 others are even married with parental permission or have joined the military.
Furthermore, almost every 16 year old will have to pay some form of taxes. 16 year olds alone contribute to millions of dollars of 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.
In addition to all the above, people under age of 18 are extremely capable of amazing intelligence and creativity. 16 year-olds have reached the summit of Mount Everest, won Nobel Prizes, conducted research on cancer treatments, published their own books and worked for NASA. If young people are capable of such astounding feats, they must irrefutably have the capacity to vote for candidates that best represent the issues that are important to them.
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 that they are responsible adults when they have committed a crime, but naive and ignorant when they campaign for the right to vote.
So how does lowering the voting age actually benefit youth?
Youth are entering politics despite not being able to vote. Individuals, 16 years-old and even younger, 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 clearly support.
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 best interests of youth because without voting power, these individuals have no means of holding their representatives accountable.
This is concerning due to issues like public education policy, environmental destruction, and long-term government debt impacting younger generations greater than anyone else. But since young people are woefully underrepresented in politics, the issues affecting them are consequently 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 has disproportionate effects on 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 and standard 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 sixteen will create another safe space for youth to add their voice to a call for climate action that our world desperately needs.