Nova Scotia

Parties want young voters for leadership, but general elections a different story

People as young as 14 can join a political party in Nova Scotia and vote in party matters such as leadership conventions, but they have to wait until 18 to vote in general elections.

Nova Scotia's 3 main political parties allow members as young as 14

Carson Harrison, 16, is one of 11,579 eligible voters for Saturday's Tory leadership convention. (CBC)

Carson Harrison has lived in a political household for as long as he can remember.

The Grade 11 student at Horton High School in Greenwich, N.S., whose dad has worked for the Progressive Conservative party, has attended annual meetings and voted in nomination contests.

On Saturday, Harrison will be one of the 11,579 eligible party members to vote in the Nova Scotia Tory leadership convention. That lifetime of exposure has made a difference, said the 16-year-old.

"Having all of it be around me and knowing how the platforms and stuff work, and how different people choose based on what the politicians have to say ... that has an impact on [my awareness]," Harrison said in an interview.

'I want things to be done right'

Riley MacKenzie, also 16, said the labour dispute last year between teachers and the provincial government was a "real eye-opener" that prompted him to become more engaged in politics.

Issues such as education and health care and a desire to spend his adult life in Nova Scotia were factors in his decision to register to vote at Saturday's convention, said MacKenzie, a Grade 11 student from Amherst.

"I don't think it's right to sit on my rear doing nothing," he said. "I want things to be done right."

While Harrison and MacKenzie are eligible to vote for a new Tory leader Saturday, they're still a couple of years shy of casting ballots in a general election.

All three major parties in Nova Scotia accept members as young as 14, but the voting age for general elections in the province is 18.

Considering a lower voting age

Provinces across the country have, at various times, debated lowering the voting age in an effort to increase voter turnout. Critics of the idea often point to the already low turnout for the youngest eligible voters, but a political science professor says it's not that simple.

Paul Howe of the University of New Brunswick said there is a curious reality about the turnout for young voters: those who are living at home when they become eligible are more likely to vote than when they're, say, 21 or 22 and no longer living at home.

"And so what we think that reflects is the fact that people, whether or not they vote, is sometimes influenced by the environment, the context that they're in." 

Simply put, if a young person is eligible to vote and they're in a house where other people are going to vote, Howe said those young people are much more likely to mark their X. It's from that starting point an argument can be made for lowering the voting age to 16, he said.

Making it a habit

Howe said the trend elsewhere is when the voting age is lowered, the youngest voters tend to cast a ballot at a higher rate than their peers in their early 20s and you have a chance to make it habit forming.

Such has been the case in Austria, where the voting age was lowered to 16, and in Scotland, where people as young as 16 were allowed to cast ballots in the independence referendum and did so at a comparable rate as older adults, said Howe.

"Which, given all we know about young people not voting as much, is actually quite an achievement."

MacKenzie and Harrison think a lower voting age could get more people interested in politics and the democratic process.

"Some of my friends, they'd like the chance to vote," said Harrison. "If the age was lower, then the people who would be interested would definitely cast their ballot."

Politics in the classroom

A representative for the Tories said the party would like to see a more engaged electorate overall and they believe that starts with teaching civics in high school.

"We have been committed to civic classes so that Nova Scotians, when they turn 18, have a good foundation of the election process, the value of public service, and the political landscape here in Nova Scotia," party spokesperson Angie Zinck said in an email.

NDP Leader Gary Burrill said his party supports lowering the voting age.

"Democratic reform is a major priority for the NDP," he said in an email.

"That includes proportional representation, fixed election dates, and lowering the voting age to 16."

McNeil once favoured lower voting age

When he was in opposition, Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil introduced a private member's bill in 2008 that would have lowered the voting age to 16 for municipal and provincial elections. At the time, McNeil said younger people should get to vote because current issues could affect their future.

That bill was not passed, and an all-party report in 2009 that looked at democratic participation did not recommend lowering the voting age. A spokesperson for the premier said there hasn't been much significant discussion about the issue since the 2009 report.

Ellen Smith, an 18-year-old from Waverley who will be voting for the first time Saturday, said it's important for more people to vote, regardless of age.

When Ellen Smith casts her ballot at Saturday's Tory leadership convention, it will be her first chance getting to vote in a significant election. (CBC)

Political parties that allow such young membership is a good way to build interest, she said.

Read more articles from CBC Nova Scotia.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia whose coverage areas include Province House, rural communities, and health care. Contact him with story ideas at michael.gorman@cbc.ca

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