Cross Country Checkup

Dropping voting age to 16 could lead to higher turnout, expert says

Young Canadians are voting less than previous generations did, but one expert says engaging them early could change that. It's an idea that B.C. municipalities and some federal leaders are on board with.

Leaders Elizabeth May, Jagmeet Singh have both signalled support for the idea

Whether or not the voting age changes, political scientist Paul Howe said schools need to better engage future voters by hosting mock elections and helping register eligible students to vote. (NarongchaiHlaw/Shutterstock)

University of British Columbia student Liam Christy wants to vote in this month's federal election, but the 17-year-old is ineligible to cast a ballot because of his age.

"It's frustrating when there's so many people like me who are so politically engaged, so educated on the matters," he told Cross Country Checkup host Duncan McCue.

"I just don't have any way to exercise my democratic right," said the environmentalist, who believes the Oct. 21 election will be a critical moment for youths in Canada.

Christy is a member of Vote 16 BC, a group advocating for dropping Canada's minimum voting age from 18 to 16. It's an idea that has gained momentum.

University of British Columbia student Liam Christy, 17, is a member of Vote 16 B.C., a group advocating for dropping Canada's minimum voting age to 16 from 18. (Liam Christy/Facebook)

Last month, the Union of B.C. Municipalities passed a resolution to lower the voting age, a move that requires a change to the province's voting legislation.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh have signalled support for a change at the federal level. Canada's Chief Electoral Officer Stéphane Perrault told CBC News last year that it was an idea "worth considering."

I think it's a good idea.- Paul Howe, political science professor at University of New Brunswick

Paul Howe, a University of New Brunswick political science professor, said, "I think it's a good idea."

The political scientist's research suggested that not only will 16- and 17-year-olds head to the polls if allowed, it could reduce political apathy among young people.

Voting data shows young Canadians voting less than the same age group did in previous generations. Howe worries that could mean turnout will continue to drop as today's young voters age.

High school political engagement key

In his book, Citizens Adrift: The Democratic Disengagement of Young Canadians, Howe examined the causes behind declining young voter turnout.

One was simply a lack of interest and knowledge about politics. 

Howe said that not only is civics education lacking, but a greater variety of media options have changed what information young Canadians consume.

"Younger people are maybe drifting away from paying close attention to news and public affairs," he said.

The other is a "culture shift towards a more individualized society." That, Howe said, has eroded the idea that one needs to be civically engaged.

Whether or not the voting age changes, Howe said schools need to better engage future voters by hosting mock elections and helping register eligible students to vote.

While Elections Canada will target new voters on university and college campuses, Howe's research suggested it's those that don't attend post-secondary education who may need a nudge toward the ballot box.

"If you take it back to the high school level, now you're getting pretty much everyone."

Not a popular idea with older Canadians

Pollster David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data, said research suggests that lowering the voting age could mean greater turnout in the future by forming the habit early. 

But not all Canadians are on board with that idea, he said.

"I don't think it's naturally a very popular idea, frankly," he told Cross Country Checkup.

"It's one that a lot of people, especially older Canadians, would look at and say, 'I'm not sure 16- and 17-year-olds are ready to participate.'" 

David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data, says research suggests that engaging voters earlier than 18 could encourage voting later in life. (CBC)

University student Christy said that while not all 16-year-olds have an interest in voting, many are equipped to make an informed decision.

When it comes to things like life experience, the concentration of the amount of knowledge we can get … whether it just be in school, or through access to the internet, is just absolutely insane.- Liam Christy, youth vote advocate

"When it comes to things like life experience, the concentration of the amount of knowledge we can get … whether it just be in school, or through access to the internet, is just absolutely insane," he told McCue.

The Kelowna, B.C., student will turn 18 in December, missing this year's election by just a few weeks. 

Pointing to countries like Scotland and Austria, which have lowered their minimum voting age to 16, Christy said a change in Canada is "more probable than people think."

"The question is whether it will be soon enough for us to cast our votes on important matters that are going to affect us for the rest of our lives and our children's lives."

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