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Motion: Reduction in Municipal Voting Age from 18 to 16

August 16, 2016

At the May 31, 2016 public Board meeting I brought forward a motion to recommend that the Government of Alberta amend the Local Authorities Election Act to reduce the municipal voting age from 18 to 16.  The following was my introduction to the motion:

“By the age of 16 young people can live on their own, pay property taxes, join the army reserves, be a parent, drive a car but they cannot vote.  They use our city’s road, facilities, buses, transit but they do not have a say in shaping our city’s future because they are not allowed by law, to vote.  They learn about government in school and they have shown in so many ways that they are engaged in their communities more than ever and understand the issues at hand but they are not allowed to vote until they are 18 years old.

Cameron Somerville the Vice Chair of the City of Edmonton Youth Council did a survey of 16 and 17-year-olds, and they overwhelmingly responded that they were in favour of lowering the voting age.

In his research, he learned that Austria lowered its voting age to 16 for national elections in 2007. Six years later the voter turn out for 16 and 17 year olds was higher than for 18-20 year olds.

Mr. Sommerville commented in a recent CBC interview that “This is important because people who vote in their first election are more likely to become lifelong voters…So that higher turnout among people voting in their first election means there will be lifelong voters, and ultimately more voter engagement for city council, which allows them to have more of a mandate from the people and also potentially run on broader platforms.”

In regards to school board elections he says lowering the voting age would allow youth to have a say in who runs our school system.  “It would also give a great opportunity to school trustees, people running for those positions, to have in their platforms issues catered to students, which will ultimately allow school boards to do their jobs more effectively.”

The ECSD Board of Trustees is being asked to support the City of Edmonton Youth Council’s initiative.  In the words of Mr. Sommerville:  “It’s not just about 16- and 17-year-olds, it’s about creating a better environment for everyone.”

Recommendation:

That the Board of Trustees write a letter to the Minister of Municipal Affairs Danielle Larivee advocating for a reduction in the municipal voting age from 18 to 16.”

The Board determined at the May 31, 2016 meeting that instead of voting on the motion immediately, I would provide the Board with more information and bring the motion back for a vote later in the Fall of 2016.  I am presenting the following information to Board in preparation for this Fall public Board meeting.

As the August 14, 2016 issue of the  Edmonton Journal states:  “[Lowering the voting age to 16 is] an idea slowly gaining traction in Europe and North America”.  The idea has also gained traction in South America as the following list of countries shows (I have included the year that the lower voting age was introduced in brackets if it was available):

  • Austria (2007)
  • Argentina (2012)
  • Norway (2011)
  • Municipality of Takoma Park, State of Maryland, USA (2013)
  • Scotland (2015)
  • Brazil (1988)
  • Germany (1995, municipal and regional level)
  • Cuba
  • Switzerland (municipal and regional level)
  • Ecuador
  • Nicaragua
  • British Crown Dependencies of  Isle of Man (2006), Jersey and Guernsey
  • Bosnia
  • Croatia
  • Serbia
  • Slovenia
  • Montenegro
  • Dominican Republic
  • Estonia (2015)
  • Malta (2013)
  • Indonesia, Sudan and Timor Leste allow 17 year old to vote

So the idea of lowering the voting age to 16 is hardly a new idea and certainly worth exploring given the number of countries across the world that have found merit in including 16 year olds in the democratic process.

The subject of lowering the voting age has received much attention recently within Alberta and Canada:

  • In February 2015 David Coon, MLA for Fredericton South introduced a petition to lower the voting age to 16 for New Brunswick’s provincial elections.
  • In September 2015 the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association discussed a resolution (pp. 37-39) brought forward by Lethbridge City Council to lower the municipal voting age to 16.  Though the resolution was defeated 77% to 23%, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi expressed his support in a Globe and Mail article.  He commented that allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote would be a great way to get them interested in the democratic process.  He referenced the research which shows that the results of mock student votes reflect closely actual results within 3 or 4 seats.
  • In January 2016 Don Davies, MP for Vancouver Kingsway introduced Bill C-213 which would allow 16 year olds to vote in federal elections.

The United States as well is also studying the subject:

  • The City of San Francisco has placed the question of lowering the municipal voting age on the November 2016 federal election ballot.
  •  Massachusetts, New York and New Mexico state legislators have recently been grappling with the issue as well.

The interest and attention of this issue across Alberta, Canada, Europe, North and South America stems from the many studies on the subject which dispel the fears and myths around lowering the voting age to 16.  In fact many of the arguments used against lowering the voting age to 16 were used years ago when the discussion was around lowering the voting age from 21 to 18.  The following are summaries of a few of the studies I have read which assures us that our democratic process will only benefit if the voting age is lowered to 16.

A study done by M. Wagner et al and published in Electoral Studies in 2012 addresses some of the criticisms for lowering the minimum voting age to 16.  The beauty of this study is that it involved under 18s who actually had the right to vote.  In 2007 Austria permitted under 18s to vote in their federal elections so this age group has casted ballots for the 2008 national parliament, the 2009 European Parliament, and the 2010 presidential elections.  The Wagner research study used data collected from a survey done in the run – up to the European Parliament elections of 2009 which over-sampled young people under 26.  So this study got rid of one considerable flaw from previous studies and that was collecting data on young people who did not have the right to vote.  It goes without saying that it is difficult to measure motivation and incentive to vote on a population that does not have that right.

This study addressed the following criticisms for reducing the voting age to 16:

  1. Young citizens under 18 are less able to participate and less motivated to participate in politics effectively than older voters
  2. The lower turnout of young people under 18 can be explained by their lower ability and lower motivation to participate in politics
  3. The quality of vote choice among voters under 18 is lower than among older voters

This study revealed the following:

  • Interest in politics is by no means particularly low among under 18s
  • There is some indication that political knowledge of the left to right continuum may be slightly lower for under 18s compared to other age groups. The study’s authors suggest that this could be due to the fact that younger citizens do not yet have the experience necessary to place parties correctly on a left-right scale.
  • Under 18s’ willingness to participate in non-electoral politics (rallies, party membership) is relatively high showing that they are as motivated to take part in political life as older age groups
  • Trust in institutions among citizens under 18 is significantly higher than the overall mean among all citizens so there is no indication at all of disaffection.

Given this, there is little evidence that citizens under 18 are less able or motivated to participate in politics.

In regards to turnout, the study shows that under 18s do have a lower voter turn – out compared to the rest of the population but it isn’t by much:

  • Under 18s’ average voting intention score was 5.91
  • 18-21 scored 6.24
  • Ages 22-25 scored 6.98
  • Over 30 scored 7.38

So under 18s only scored 0.33 less than over 18s and only 1.47 less than over 30s. This study did not explain why the voter turn- out was slightly less for under 18s but it was able to determine that it was not because of a lack of knowledge or interest in politics.  Nor was it due to democratic dissatisfaction and alienation.

In regards to the quality of the decision i.e. how under 18s choice in party lined up with their personal ideological preferences, they scored no differently than other age groups.  Even though it isn’t significant, under 18s scored higher than other age groups in congruence between their ideology and the party they chose compared to other age groups. So there is no convincing evidence that voting decisions of under 18s is in any way of lesser quality than that of older groups of voters.

The study’s authors conclude then that “Lowering the voting age does not appear to have a negative impact on the authentic preferences of the members of a community and the quality of democratic decisions.  This means that the potential positive consequences of this reform merit particular consideration…Our findings show that a key criticism of lowering the voting age to 16 does not hold:  there is little evidence that these citizens are less able or less motivated to participate effectively in politics.”

Daniel Hart, a psychology professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey published a study in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences in 2011 that concluded that 16 and 17 year olds are ready to vote.  The study’s abstract states:

“American adolescents manifest levels of development in each quality of citizenship that are approximately the same as those apparent in young American adults who are allowed to vote. The lack of relevant differences in capacities for citizenship between 16- and 17-year-olds and those legally enfranchised makes current laws arbitrary…Awarding voting rights to 16- and 17-year-olds is important, given the changing age demographics in the country, which have resulted in the growing block of older voters displacing the interests of younger Americans in the political arena. Finally, the authors critically examine claims that adolescents are neither neurologically nor socially mature enough to vote responsibly and conclude that empirical evidence and fairness suggest that 16- and 17-year-olds ought to be awarded the vote”.

A 2011 working paper on Youth Electoral Engagement in Canada by Andre Blais, University of Montreal and Peter Loewen, University of Toronto reveals that youth electoral engagement in Canada is declining.  This is verified by the April 2010 publication Youth Voter Turnout in Canada published by the Parliament of Canada :  in the 1972 federal election, 72% of 18 – 24 year olds voted.  By the 2000 election however, that number had dropped to 60% and by 2011, only 38.8% of 18-24 year olds voted in the federal election.  Blais and Loewen suggest that though the causes for this decline are unknown, it is known that the most powerful predictors of voting are interest in and information about politics.  It is safe to say that if our schools were to expand 16 and 17 year old students’ understanding of and interest in politics while they had an actual opportunity to vote in an election, a higher percentage of young people may continue to vote into the future.

The fact that voter turn out of 18-24 is in a nose dive begs us to consider ways that the federal, provincial, municipal levels of government as well as school boards can better engage our young people in the electoral process and ensure that they become life long voters.  I recommend that the Board of Trustees of Edmonton Catholic request the Government of Alberta amend the Local Authorities Elections Act to lower the minimum voter age to 16.

Addendum:  A helpful summary of arguments for amending the Local Authorities Elections Act has been provided by the City of Lethbridge in the Resolution they brought forward to the AUMA meeting in September of 2015.  Go to pages 37-38 at AUMA Resolution 2015.B5

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