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Voting: Figuring out an ideal age to make a democratic decision and sticking with it

Credit: MONKEY BUSINESS IMAGES (THINKSTOCK)

There are pros and cons to lowering the voting age across Canada, but only time will tell if this will actually be something set in stone.


Nicholas Tibollo | Interrobang | Opinion | April 9th, 2018




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In 1947, Winston Churchill, reaffirming an anonymous predecessor, famously declared that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms”.

The British Bulldog recognized that, although inadequate in many ways, a democratic system that allows for a diversity of opinion is better than a dictatorship or an absolute monarchy. Yet, as Churchill’s ambivalence suggests, what makes democracy desirable, also makes it dangerous. The “rule of the people” is indiscriminate. It includes the uninformed, the impressionable, the careless and the corrupt. Relatively few impediments obstruct a citizen in a fully-democratic society from taking part in the political process.

One obstruction, however, is age. In Canada, anyone under 18 is ineligible to vote in an official election.

Though, some Canadians want to do away with this obstacle (at least in part) and argue that the voting age, like in Austria, Scotland and Brazil, should be lowered to 16.

Last month, both a British Columbia MLA and an Ontario MPP put forth private member’s legislation that would see 16 year-olds vote in their respective provinces. At the federal level, a similar bid to amend the Elections Act was introduced in 2016 and remains under review.

Despite the unlikelihood of any of these bills hastily becoming law (if at all), their conception indicates a sincere desire to spawn reform.

Interestingly, none of these recent attempts to change the voting age have come from a Conservative. All of the proposals mentioned above were put forth by people on the political Left.

Why, exactly, do so many “liberal-minded” politicians want more young people at the ballot box?

A poll conducted by Abacus Data revealed that an astonishing 70 per cent of people age 18-25 voted for either the Liberal Party or the NDP in the 2015 federal election. Only 20 per cent of the same age bracket voted for the Conservative Party.

Younger voters, more often than not, tick anything but Right. Left-leaning, opportunistic members of parliament undoubtedly look at the under 18 cohort as an untapped oil spring of potential votes. Lowering the voting age to 16 would, in all probability, increase the chances of a federal Conservative defeat in 2019 (and beyond).

Though, should people so young be granted the vote?

A typical argument in favour of reform points to one of the many other freedoms currently afforded to 16 year-olds. The most common: “they can drive, why can’t they vote?”

Without delving too deep into false equivalencies, driving a car and electing government officials who will dictate Canadian life and law for four years or more are incomparable. The former requires one to pay attention to his or her immediate surroundings and employ the motor skills developed in adolescence, while the latter demands acute foresight, sound judgement, an ability to reason logically and an awareness and understanding of issues that most high school students simply ignore.

Generally, a person’s brain is not fully developed until about the age of 25 (if not later). The last part of the brain to mature is the prefrontal cortex, responsible for, amongst other things, complex planning, decision making and logical thinking. Teens, particularly those under 18, tend to behave according to emotion. Important choices that affect an entire population should not be made instinctively.

Of course, healthy adults with fully developed prefrontal cortexes make poor, irrational decisions all the time. Though, most adults at least have the proper cognitive equipment in place to identify and untangle political motives and proposed policies; teenagers, simply, do not.

If anything, the voting age should be raised. At 18, let alone at 16, the majority of people are completely (and understandably) uninterested in what actually goes on at Centre Block. Only once the commitments of adulthood crash in from every angle do most people start to care. Home ownership, full-time employment, significant taxation, bills, debt, childcare, healthcare, marriage, divorce, schooling and planning for retirement all come together to make political awareness all but obligatory.

Democracy, as Winston Churchill accurately professed, is far from perfect. Giving a group of impressionable, uninformed, emotionally charged, cognitively underdeveloped teenagers with limited real world experience the power to sway the balance of an election would make the democratic system even more discreditable.

At present, the voting age in Canada is acceptable. Raising it would be ideal; lowering it would be a tremendous mistake