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Colby Cosh: Turning the age-old debate about teen voting on its head

I for one would be happy to join the crusade for age-16 voting if young offender laws ceased to apply at 16 rather than at 18

Those who are advocating dropping the voting age to 16 are doing so in an attempt to gain political advantage, Colby Cosh writes.

In Wednesday’s NP Platformed newsletter , I wrote about a new Charter challenge to Canada’s voting age being brought by a pack of 16- and 17-year-olds with youth advocacy and civil liberties groups behind them. It is a reminder that there are lots of people around in Canada who are incredibly keen on having a lowered voting age — almost always 16.

Their usual take is that it would be helpful to establish the habit of voting in people who are still in high school. This will boost turnout, a parameter which they equate unconditionally with democratic health. (That’s right, folks: it’s the Turnout Nerds again.) Reducing the voting age to 18 in the 1970s flattened turnout in every country that did it, but it turns out we just didn’t push downward far enough. We need to get citizens voting while their tiny little plastic minds are still being moulded, rather than waiting until they have full legal and economic independence in principle.

As you can probably tell, I think this argument is a little shaky. It is certainly in the self-interest of parties and groups of the left to bring younger voters into the electorate before they are paying their own taxes. The hope of the petitioners seems to be that age-18 eligibility will be deemed incompatible with the Charter on the grounds that restrictions on the right to vote must be “minimally impairing.” An appellate court might have the temerity to throw the question back to Parliament with a hint that a voting age of 16 would pass muster.

As you can probably tell, I think this argument is a little shaky

The one thing you are guaranteed to hear, if this argument becomes more prominent in 2022, is that 16-year-olds should be trusted to vote since we trust them to drive. “What’s magical about the age of 18?” the teenage-voting crowd crows. “We let you climb behind the wheel of a motor vehicle earlier than that, and that’s arguably a much more consequential thing!” There are other arguments of the same species they can make — under some circumstances a person as young as 12 can consent to sexual intercourse — but the driving thing is the one that will always come up when the voting-age argument kicks off.

I would urge you to consider how lousy this particular argument is. First of all, the Canadian provinces have been in steady retreat, for some decades now, from giving kids an unlimited right to drive at 16. That’s because 16-year-olds have execrable personal judgment, and treating them as adults in this setting gets large numbers of people killed. In Ontario, the passenger restrictions that would once have accompanied a “learner’s” licence to drive aren’t really lifted now until age 20 , and there’s a zero-tolerance blood-alcohol rule that persists until you turn 21. Alberta also has a graduated-eligibility system: you can still get the traditional learner’s permit at 14, but the “full” ordinary driver’s licence without restrictions is not available until you’re 18.

The same kind of situation exists in labour law, of course: persons under 18 can join the workforce, but because their youth creates extreme potential for them to be exploited, adult supervision is required and they are restricted in the types and hours of their activity. We can easily turn the argument for 16-year-olds voting on its head here: why maintain elaborate, distinct labour standards for minors if we regard them as mature and unconditionally qualified for the duties of citizenship? Persons under 18 generally can’t make contracts at all in our legal system: who is militating to abolish this outrage?

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And why cling to the Young Offenders’ Act? In our country, 16-year-olds can commit crimes of the most ferocious brutality under a seal of eternal anonymity: it is accepted that they are not yet fully responsible citizens, and that they are generally deserving of diminished punishment. Does anyone ever propose a trade? I for one would be happy to join the crusade for age-16 voting if young offender laws ceased to apply at 16 rather than at 18, or were simply thrown in the trash. Let the chariot of revolution pop wheelies upon the shattered remains of all odious age distinctions!

I hesitate to say it, but it’s almost as if the people insisting on the voting rights of young people are doing so in bad faith. They don’t really believe in promoting 16-year-olds to legal adulthood except for this one purpose, a purpose that serves their political advantage. It makes a catspaw of our paramount symbol of eligibility for active citizenship. And, as I wrote yesterday, the state of the caselaw is such that the ploy might work in an appellate court.

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