Britain’s next general election is supposed to be a grownups-only event — ballots available only to people 18 years and older.
That is going to be a strange experience for more than 100,000 young people in Scotland; the 16- and 17-year-olds who were allowed to vote in that exciting and historic referendum on independence this month.
Having had a taste of democratic participation, these newly engaged voters are going to be kicked back to the kids’ table next spring when the United Kingdom goes to the polls. That’s unfortunate.
Scotland’s referendum taught many lessons at home and abroad, and one of the most heartening was the wisdom in lowering the voting age to 16 from 18.
After spending a week in Scotland watching the referendum, some images have stayed with me, and many of the most enduring have young voters in them — the 17-year-old No supporter taking time away from college studies to hand out balloons on a Glasgow street; the two young students in hoodies, one outfitted in a Yes T-shirt, the other wearing No, sitting silently across from each other on the subway.
Walking down Princes St. in Edinburgh, I saw an elderly couple, both dressed in sensible brown tweed, having a spirited debate with two teenagers sporting Yes badges. This kind of discussion, between young and old, parents and children, was reportedly taking place around family dinner tables all over Scotland.
Every night on the streets of Edinburgh, until the referendum result was announced, young Yes voters paraded through the streets, dancing when cruising Yes cars passed by, blaring Scotland the Brave or Queen’s “I Want to Break Free” on giant speakers.
What do these young people do now with the democratic passions unleashed by their participation in the referendum debate?
In Canada, we already have a version of this odd situation. Everyone 14 years of age or older is eligible to join a political party and vote for policies and leaders, but they are not allowed to cast a ballot in a general election until they’re 18.
An argument can be made for this gap. We could see political-party membership as a learner’s permit, of sorts, before young people are fully licensed to drive on the democratic freeway.
But after seeing the young voters in Scotland, not to mention some very smart young teenagers here in our midst in Canada, I’m more persuaded now that we need to lower the voting age.
The critics will say that lowering the voting age just means that we’re extending the franchise to people who don’t want it — young people in Canada are notoriously the worst at turnout, with fewer than four out of 10 people under 25 years of age casting a ballot.
But it can also be argued that lowering the voting age is an opportunity to grab young attention earlier; to instill democratic habits before they graduate from high school.
Conservative MP Peter Goldring pronounced himself shocked on Twitter by all the youth participation in Scotland, declaring the referendum a “sham” because the country put its fate in the hands of 50-per-cent-plus-one of the population, “let alone, underage children.”
So we can probably mark Goldring down as a No on any efforts to lower the voting age here.
A bill is now sitting before the Commons to lower the voting age to 16, sponsored by New Democratic Party MP Don Davies. The bill has been introduced by Davies in two previous sessions of Parliament, too, but it has gone nowhere.
A decade ago, Mark Holland, then a Liberal MP, also introduced a bill to lower the voting age to 16, but it died when Parliament, and Liberal rule, dissolved in November of 2005.
In Newfoundland this June, the provincial Liberal party came out in favour of a lowered voting age, too.
At the federal level, we probably don’t have enough time to lower the voting age before the 2015 election, whether it comes in fall or in spring.
However, inspired by the Scottish example, it could be an election issue — a way of engaging future voters and their families. It’s not a bad issue for Justin Trudeau to get behind — it was his father, Pierre Trudeau, who was in power in 1970 when the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18. Given Trudeau’s much-touted appeal to younger voters, a Liberal-platform promise to extend the franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds would seem like a natural fit for the party.
Oh. You may be wondering why I haven’t talked about maturity and voting age. Sure, some people are going to argue that young teenagers lack the maturity to participate in democratic debate.
I’d ask those doubters: Have you seen Question Period recently?