By Sara Austin
What if kids could vote?
Growing up, I didn’t give this much thought. But I ponder this question almost every day as an adult. Long before I turned 18, I was already a social activist with political views. I vividly remember staging protests and engaging in many forms of activism throughout my elementary and high school years. While voting wasn’t on my mind as a kid, it’s an issue that I hear many young people talking about through our work at Children First Canada (CFC).
As an organization, lowering the voting age first came on our radar in 2017. While consulting with youth to draft Canada’s first Children’s Charter, almost every discussion pointed back to one concern: children feel their opinions don’t count because they are not a voting constituency.
“People like to say that ‘children are our future,’ but we are also the present,” says 13-year-old Roman Wolfi, a member of CFC’s Youth Advisory Council. “We are Canadian citizens. If we could vote, perhaps the issues we face would be a greater focus.”
This past June, Independent Senator Marilou McPhedran introduced Bill S-219 to lower the federal voting age from 18 to 16. Although other parliamentarians have called for this change in the past, this is the first time such a bill has started in Senate.
Talk of lowering the voting age elicits strong reactions. Some people laugh at the idea, while others get angry. But lowering the voting age isn’t as radical as it seems.
In Austria, 16-year-olds have been voting for more than a decade. Scotland, Brazil and Argentina are also among the countries that have lowered the voting age requirements.
Teenagers contribute to the economy and learn about politics and government structures at school. At age 16, Canadians can drive, work and pay income tax. Youth volunteers also participate in political campaigns. At age 14, they can even vote for the leader of a federal political party. While young people in Canada can’t yet vote in elections, they are often the first to vote with their feet – spearheading protests and advocating for social change.
Among the most common objections to youth voting are the perceived incompetence of children and that they would be too easily influenced by their peers or parents. Children are often quick to point out that they know more than their parents about politics, especially since it’s part of the school curriculum. They also point out that adults are free to spoil the ballot or vote for the Rhinoceros Party. And adults are just as likely to be swayed by the influence of social media, lawn signs, their spouse – or even their kids, for that matter.
Youth have a stake in the future of our nation – so why can’t they cast a ballot to make their views count?
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms says that every Canadian citizen has the right to vote. Children are citizens, too. They deserve to have a say in the decisions that will affect their future. We don’t judge the competency of adults before they head to the polls. And we shouldn’t do that to youth either.
In partnership with other youth advocacy organizations, CFC has been considering a court challenge to lower the voting age. But the first step in this process is to listen to what young people have to say. This year, we launched a series of online forums with children and youth about getting to the polls at an earlier age. We plan to release the results of our consultations in the coming weeks.
Extending voting rights to 16- and 17-year-olds would balance political discourse and ensure better representation at the polls. Some say we should go so far as to abolish the voting age altogether. Enfranchising children and youth would give political leaders a greater incentive to invest in their lives and take their concerns more seriously. It would also send a strong message that young people are valued in our society.
Canada is falling behind other affluent nations when it comes to protecting the well-being of children. While lowering the voting age will undoubtedly spark some controversy, it will certainly change the way politicians think about and engage with youth. If youth start heading to the polls, political platforms will make them a priority. That’s why I vote for change.
Sara Austin is the founder and CEO of Children First Canada.