Who should get to vote? That question has been answered differently throughout history. When Athens invented democracy in the fifth century BC, it looked very different. Many posts were filled “by lot” (yes, as in lottery) and the participants included only free adult male citizens who had completed military training. Notably, women, slaves, and foreigners were excluded. Citizenship, which was based on lineage instead of birthplace, could also be revoked for failing to pay debts.
In British colonies, representatives were chosen (without a secret ballot) by the propertied class. It was during the ratification of the United States Constitution that property requirements were reduced or eliminated as an acknowledgment that the Revolutionary War was fought by all. It was after the US civil war that slavery was abolished in North America and the franchise was extended to African-Americans in recognition of the role they played in the Union Army.
Fortunately, post-confederation Canada did not need any conflicts to understand that “All men are created equal.” It did take a World War, however, to acknowledge that women were also equal and deserved the right to vote. As late as 1928, the Supreme Court of Canada had ruled that women could not be appointed to the Senate because they were not “persons”. On October 18 every year, we celebrate Persons Days to mark the overturning of that ruling in 1929 by our British masters.
The 1960s ushered in cultural shifts and opened new debates. The voting age at the time was 21 even though younger Canadians could get married, serve in the military, and earn a living. The UK and Canada lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 in 1970, the US followed in 1971, and it is now the most common age requirement for voting rights across the world.
Certainly, some sort of age requirement is reasonable. A two-month old infant cannot be expected to cast a ballot. However, is the citizen whose 18th birthday is the week after the election not mentally capable of making an informed choice? Under what pretense are they denied a say in their country’s future? (Full Disclosure: Although a university student at the time, I could not vote in the 2004 federal election.)
In 2007, Austria lowered its voting age to 16 for all elections. Scotland moved to give 16 and 17 year olds a vote in its 2014 referendum on independence. Here in Canada, MP Mark Holland introduced Bill C-261 in 2004 to reduce the voting age to 16, arguing that it would turn the tide of youth voter disengagement. It was defeated… by MPs who governed on behalf of Canada’s youth but were not elected by it.
What is the official policy of the ruling Liberal Party on the matter? It straddles pages 27 and 28 of their “Real Change” platform available here. In case they remove the file, it says:
Obviously, I don’t think that goes far enough but I’m also not in favour of a straight reduction in the voting age, either. In the third pillar of the Manougian model for Canadian electoral reform, I spell out an alternative system to ensure that young Canadians are appropriately represented in the halls of government. It is a concept borrowed from Ontario school boards, where student trustees, elected annually by secondary students, sit alongside trustees elected, once every four years, by citizens over 18. They have full participation rights in Board meetings and committees (except during staff appointment decisions) and even get to cast their vote on final Board decisions. Their vote is recorded but does not count toward deciding a motion’s passage or defeat.
My suggestion is to add Student Parliamentarians to the House of Commons, elected by 14-17 year-old citizens and permanent residents, from among candidates aged 14-17 who are Canadian citizens. New, separate constituencies should be created for them, which span several regular ridings, such that the youth demographic is represented in equal proportion to the general population in the average electoral district.
Elections should take place annually, where one Student Parliamentarian is elected for a two year term. Thus, each constituency would be represented by two Student Parliamentarians, who would learn from their senior partner in the first year, and mentor their junior partner in the second. Just like student trustees in Ontario school boards, they would have the right to speak and vote in the House of Commons but their votes would not be counted towards the passing or defeat of a bill or motion.
In this way, youth are given a seat at the table while acknowledging that their education in how countries should be run is not yet complete. The annual election exercise would give them all a wealth of experience in the voting process and facilitate their registration to the general election list of voters when they turn 18.
You may have noticed that I included permanent residents as eligible to vote in this process. Most immigrants to Canada apply for citizenship shortly after meeting the three-year residence requirement. At least in Toronto, there is a movement to extend voting rights for municipal elections to permanent residents even before they obtain citizenship. Personally, I think it is reasonable to ask a newcomer to spend one election observing the process before getting to cast a ballot of their own. I am not recommending that the citizenship requirement for voting rights be abolished. However, in the scenario of a Student Parliamentarian, who is there as a barometer of future public opinion, and an annual election that plays an educational role, I believe it would be fair to include permanent residents as voters but not candidates. It is as inclusive as possible without creating potential complications if a non-citizen Student Parliamentarian were to lose their residency status. (Full Disclosure: I was a Canadian citizen at birth.)
To those who would say that a 14 year old is not mature enough to have any say in the democratic process, I want it to be clear that they are already eligible to become members of the major political parties, within which they are already eligible to vote for riding association executives, local candidate nominations, and even during leadership races. In those scenarios, their vote is equal to a 44 year-old’s. Also, you do not need to be a citizen to join the major Canadian political parties.
This reform is just the first of many that I will write about on this blog. Check back often and let me know what you think. Remember, you are the one who gets to decide if it becomes a reality.