Over the past few decades there has been a movement internationally to reduce the voting age, at least at the municipal level, to 16. Certain states in Europe, specifically Norway and Germany, have moved to a model wherein those citizens of at least 16 years of age can vote in municipal elections and civic referendums. Recently some cities in the United States have moved this way as well.
I would suggest that our local civic democracy can benefit from expanding our elector pool to include those citizens aged 16 and 17, and I encourage our municipal and territorial government to explore the matter.
The decision to bring younger voters into the fold rests mainly in the services provided at the city level, as much of a city’s infrastructure is geared for youth. Skate parks and basketball courts are examples of infrastructure predominantly used by a younger demographic. Buses and city transit are also of particular importance to that age group, as many do not yet own cars or have driver’s licences. The addition or removal of this infrastructure is a matter that is of interest to a younger demographic, while changes to mortgage rates and tax rates are issues that have yet to appear on their radar. The saying “municipal politics is close to home” perhaps applies most fully to youth, as municipal politics is perhaps the only politics of interest to that demographic.
Bringing youth into the electoral equation at the municipal level gives them a say in creating common spaces for their use. Such input will result in a better idea of what youth need when it comes to the infrastructure we are going to build anyway.
Further, a reduction in the voting age will give youth earlier exposure to the democratic process and (hopefully) help instill the importance of participating in the democratic system through voting. The turnout in the last federal election for the 18-24 demographic was a fairly dismal 39 per cent, when compared with a turnout of 70 per cent for those 50 and over.
By starting participation in civic society in high school we provide a window into the relationship between voting and provision of public services. As municipal politics and the projects that flow from same are more visible, students will (again hopefully) see the relationship between their votes and civic governance.
Plus we have most of the 16- and 17-year-old citizens trapped in schools at that age, meaning that politicians will be forced to attend local high schools to give speeches and pitch platforms when looking for votes. After high school most of us don’t work with groups large enough to attract a visit from a politician. This will create a dialogue with students and, again, reveal a real connection between voters, politicians, and civic governance. Ideally we would see the rise of youth candidates to foster debate within the youth community and provide platforms and ideas that reflect the needs and priorities of that particular sector of civic society.
One could argue that youth would be irresponsible electors in that they do not pay property taxes and would, therefore, make decisions without taking monetary constraints into account. I don’t find much weight in that argument, as we adults (and our adult politicians) frequently make decisions based on immediate needs rather than cost. The current debt-to-GDP ratios of both Quebec and Ontario are an example of adults making decisions over a period of decades that accord more with immediate provision of services rather than an ability to pay.
In short, paying income or property taxes does not a responsible elector make. Such arguments tying taxation to voting are more reflective of electoral rules from the 19th century, wherein only land-owners could vote. Expanding the electorate provides us with a wider viewpoint when making decisions, regardless of whether or not those individuals pay property tax.
Though I am in favour of lowering the voting age at the city and town level, I would suggest that we leave territorial and federal politics threshold at the age of 18, using the municipal level as a graduated stepping stone to wider participation. We do not consider 16 year olds to be adults for consideration pursuant to the Criminal Code, therefore it wouldn’t make much sense to have 16 years to be in a position to vote in federal elections which could affect the Criminal Code.
Including 16- and 17-year-olds in the municipal political process will hopefully provide youth with a window into how politics can affect our day-to-day lives at an early stage in their lives and increase turnout going forward, while also providing a voice for youth in the direction of Yukon’s cities and townships.
The requirement to be 18 to vote in municipal elections is found in the territorial Municipal Act, and not in city or town bylaws, meaning any change must occur through amendment of territorial legislation by the Yukon government. I would encourage our local MLAs, in conjunction with the Yukon Association of Communities, to investigate the lowering of the voting age at the city and township levels and perhaps look at an amendment to the Municipal Act in the future.
Graham Lang is a Whitehorse
lawyer and long-time Yukoner.