Lowering the voting age makes sense

Telegraph Journal Commentary

David Coon
March 11, 2015

In New Brunswick, you can get a part-time job, drive a farm tractor, or operate an ATV when you are 14. At 16, you can be sentenced as an adult for certain serious offences. Your consent for medical treatment must be sought when you reach 16.

You can be licensed to drive a car at 16. You can get married when you are 16, with parental consent. You must leave foster care at 16 because the provincial government has determined you are mature enough to fend for yourself. At 17, you can join the Canadian forces. What you can't do in New Brunswick is vote when you are 16 and 17 years of age.

Denying 16- and 17-year-old New Brunswickers the right to vote is simply unjust. Further, it is the right age to cast a first ballot to increase the rate of electoral participation in subsequent years. This is why I introduced a private members bill to the legislative assembly to lower the voting age.

Support for lowering the voting age is coming from groups such as the Fédération des Jeunes Francophones du Nouveau-Brunswick, Partners for Youth and from people of all ages from all over New Brunswick. The question is: will the Liberals and Conservatives support the bill?

Government after government has failed to engage New Brunswick youth. Voter turnout is miserably low and there is a lack of youth input in democratic decision-making. More advertising urging young people to vote is not going to make any difference. We need to take concrete action by lowering the voting age.

Countries as diverse as Austria, Brazil and Denmark have extended the right to vote to 16- and 17-year-olds. In Austria, research shows that contrary to conventional wisdom, 16-year-olds do have the knowledge, interest and maturity to participate in the electoral process. In fact, their rate of participation in elections is close to that of the general population, far out-pacing the participation rates of 18- to 20-year-olds who were casting their first ballots. The mere act of voting appears to drive an interest to become informed and engaged in issues.

The stability of a home environment, parental engagement, exposure to civics education and election issues in a high school milieu combine to assure a high level of electoral participation among 16- and 17-year-olds. Casting a first ballot in the more chaotic and isolated circumstances of living away from home, attending university and generally fending for oneself for the first time presents a much greater challenge, discouraging voting behaviour.

Sixteen and 17-year-olds deserve the right to vote and the act of doing so will lead to greater engagement in our democratic system. This is what many politicians claim they want to see, but the means to achieve this goal has thus far eluded them. With my bill, there is a chance to actually adopt a solution to turn what they say they want into reality.

Debate on Bill 10, the Act to Amend the Elections Act, will begin at the legislative assembly on Thursday afternoon.

David Coon is the MLA for Fredericton-South and the Leader of the Green Party of New Brunswick.