Democracy Hacks: Should children have a vote?

University of Ottawa economist Miles Corak proposes extending the vote to all citizens of Canada, regardless of age.
A child posts his mother's ballot, during the municipal elections in Pau, southwestern France. (AP Photo/Bob Edme) (The Associated Press)

This week's Democracy Hack comes to us from University of Ottawa economist Miles Corak. He specializes in issues of child poverty, and has an interest in a field of economics called "public choice," which involves researching voting mechanisms.

Put those two elements together, and his suggestion for improving democracy is, well, child's play.

Miles Corak says the right to vote should be extended to every child in Canada.

Evolving electoral system

Corak tells Jim Brown this week that he knows the idea sounds "crazy," but says right now a large portion of Canada's population remains disenfranchised.

He points to historic restrictions on voting that allowed only men, and in some cases only men who owned property, to cast a ballot. He says allowing children a say in the political process could be seen as the next evolution of our electoral system.

How would it work?

Corak proposes that children be given the vote through a proxy, granted to a custodial parent. Essentially, a mother with two children would get to cast three ballots on election day: one for herself, and one for each of the kids.

"I can't just imagine a group of toddlers all lined up quietly, waiting patiently at the polling both with their purple crayons in hand to vote. So the idea really is to allow children to exercise their right to vote by giving their parents a proxy," he explains. 

It's a view that recognizes that a child is a citizen of this country, and that the most fundamental right of citizenship is the right to vote.- Miles Corak, University of Ottawa

Corak admits that the consequences of extending the franchise to all Canadians, regardless of age, might be hard to predict, but he imagines it could have far-reaching implications on how the political process works.

Could combat "age bias"

He cites as an example the traditional influence of a large demographic like Canada's baby boomers. He says policy makers responding to the needs of such a populous group, and politicians seeking its support, could tend to inject a certain "age bias" into the institutions of government.

Without that bias, he feels public policy might become more forward-looking, and engage all groups in a society. He says childcare spending, the legalization of marijuana, and environmental policies might all be different discussions if younger voters were top of mind for policy makers.

"We don't, for example take away the right to vote from the elderly who may suffer from cognitive or physical limitations. We recognize that right, and we put in institutions and mechanisms, so that they can exercise that right. This (idea) is an application of that principle at the other end of that spectrum, " he explains.

"We transfer significant economic resources to parents in the name of the child, in their best interest, so there is precedent here."

Would it ever happen?

He admits the likelihood of Canadian politicians adopting the idea are slim, but says it's been discussed in Hungary, Japan and New Zealand.

"My main interests are in child poverty and in the kinds of investments we can make in children so they can become all that they can be," he explains. "Sometimes children fall off the political agenda and I wonder why that's so, and part of the reason is that they don't have the same political clout as other groups."

"When you read the UN's charter on the Rights of the Child, certainly it's incumbent on government to recognize the voice of children, and this might be one mechanism to link up into that conversation."