Voting Age

How old should you be to vote? This question has been introduced into the BC Provincial Liberal Leadership debate, where it is suggested that as a way to increase voter turnout we lower the voting age to 16.

Part of the argument is that encouraging young people to vote will “get them in the habit.” But getting to vote (maybe) one election early isn’t going to build a habit in the first place, and I question that this is even a desirable goal. I want people to vote because they are prepared to inform themselves and make conscious decisions, not by some unconscious reflex.

We have long recognized that we need to distinguish adults and minors for various purposes. Thus, we have an age of consent, an age to be able to drive and such, and an age where a person is legally an adult. We hold voting to be of this last category — requiring adulthood, and the competency to be fully responsible for one’s own actions.

Yes, there are some who aren’t really ready then, and others who are ready sooner. In general, we can’t assess this on an individual basis, so we use age as a proxy. It’s a bit rough, but it’s the best we’ve got at the moment.

Roughly, 16-year-olds are still figuring out who they are, how the world works and how they fit into it, and, while intelligent and capable, their cognitive development is still a work in progress. Lacking experience in the basics of earning a living, paying the rent, taking on a mortgage, or figuring out how to feed a family — my own feeling is that, broad brush strokes again, they don’t yet have enough context.

We need to look at low voter turnout as an indication of an underlying problem, not the problem itself. Artificially inflating the numbers won’t address this, just mask it. We need to ask why, when around the world so many risk death, torture, or prison for a chance to vote, why do so few “bother” here? If it matters to them, at great personal, even mortal, risk, they’ll vote; no bother. How do we make it matter to them?

Too many people don’t understand how our system works, or how they can participate all along the way. Many feel that if their choice doesn’t win, their vote was wasted and they’re not then represented; a perceptual error, I think.

There are many things we could do, such as on-going workshops and public education campaigns to foster better understanding and engagement. And, I also think that moving from first-past-the-post elections to a preferential ballot system would help a lot.

In any case, let’s not fudge the numbers to make it look better, let’s make it better.

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