Adults love to tell children that they’re going to change the world. We are often the ones tasked with achieving our parents’ dreams, solving existential problems, and being a source of hope. Young people, we’re told again and again, will not only lead the world but will save it. Yet, if we get angry about climate change or inequality and try to bring about any kind of real change, if we dare to venture out of the enclosed bubbles that have been created for us, we are dismissed and ignored. Nowhere is this hypocrisy clearer than when young people demand the right to vote.
Consider California senator Dianne Feinstein. In February 2019, she found herself facing down a group of school-aged youths who were asking her to vote in favour of the Green New Deal, a policy proposal that aimed to radically transform the energy sector to limit the effects of climate change. “The government is supposed to be for the people,” one of the young people argues in a video posted by the Bay Area chapter of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led organization dedicated to fighting climate change. When Feinstein learns that one of the young women there was only sixteen, the senator is quick to shut her down: “You didn’t vote for me,” she says. Then she goes with a classic response used whenever young people call for specific action to be taken. “You know better than I do,” Feinstein says. “So I think one day you should run for the Senate and then you do it your way.” “Great,” the student replies. “I will.”
This interaction perfectly exemplifies the ways young people’s demands in politics are dismissed and deflected. Our opinions remain undervalued because of our age, and instead of finding ways to consider our perspectives, adults tell us to wait until we’re old enough and then get involved. That response totally ignores how important it is that we talk about these issues now. Though many teens are excluded from representational politics almost everywhere, this status quo doesn’t have to continue.
Teenagers can be inexperienced and rebellious (I would know). We often stress over things considered frivolous, like tests and homecoming and whether anyone is going to notice that pimple. But the same can be said for any adult too—they worry over workplace politics, dinner-party invitations, and, yes, whether anyone is going to notice that pimple. Teens, just like adults, have thoughts on the many issues our society faces, from climate change to police brutality to the rising cost of living. So why must we wait to cross an arbitrary line—6,570 days of life—before we can have any say in decisions that affect us all?
Those of us in generation Z are growing up as global citizens. In recent years, we’ve been trying to take the lead with countless initiatives, including the recent student movement to end sexual violence in Canadian schools and young climate leaders like Greta Thunberg demanding global policy change. But, even with all the media attention, actual change has been slow. Is it any surprise that young people are now demanding the right to vote to try to get results?
Take the recent court challenge in Canada, launched by thirteen young people, to lower the federal voting age. In November 2021, the students filed an application at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, claiming the section of the Canada Elections Act that disqualifies Canadians under eighteen from voting is unconstitutional. The case is now before the courts, but it is just one example of how teens can demand action now, not off in the future.
Lowering the voting age to sixteen could be the best way for young people to actually bring about change. It would allow us to actually participate in elections rather than forcing us to sit out and comment from the sidelines. The concerns, particularly around climate change, of the younger generations are also more important now than ever because of the narrowing time limit we have to solve these problems. Youth and adults share many of the same political concerns, and we cannot put these conversations off to a later date.
The choice to ignore young people in politics is society’s not-so-discreet way of telling us that we have nothing of value to add to our national conversations. But young people are demanding a say. One of them is Diego Christiansen-Barker, an eighteen-year-old activist and incoming freshman at the University of British Columbia. Christiansen-Baker is also one of the thirteen youths who launched the legal challenge to lower the federal voting age. When I asked him why he became involved in this push for the right to vote, he explained that lowering the voting age would force politicians to listen to young people’s opinions in their attempts to win support. “The real power of this movement is having politicians listen to us,” he said. Even if it wouldn’t completely overhaul the voting bloc, “the vote adds another tool in the toolbox of activism, giving us a pathway to pressure this person to make this change.”
There have been many bills in the past that proposed expanding the voting age. The most recent came from the NDP in 2021. But the party’s proposal, like the many before it, seems to have stalled: while debating the bill, the Conservatives pushed back, and the Liberals added their own critiques. For many politicians, the disenfranchisement of youth seems to be a non-issue.
Concerns about lowering the voting age are often vague and insubstantial. Some people argue that teenagers are not politically aware enough to vote responsibly or that we are too impressionable. But, as Taylor Bachrach, the NDP MP who proposed the Right to Vote at 16 Act, argues, no other age group is held to that standard. “People vote for all kinds of different reasons,” he says. Voters of all ages can be influenced by external factors, whether it’s tradition, financial self-interest, or a snappy ad. There is never a right way to vote.
Older Canadians also have their own biases, whether they recognize them or not. Some will vote to protect the value of their homes and investments. Some will fight for lower taxes, causing other people to sacrifice and go without. Short-term self-interest often dominates our political conversations as a result. With more years in front of the youth of today, food insecurity, environmental degradation, climate change, and economic inequality will directly affect them more than they will any other generation. In a recent interview with the Globe and Mail, Western University political science professor Laura Stephenson discussed how youth often have a different “time horizon” when it comes to thinking about their future compared with adults. “The more they see us [adults] messing up the world for them, the more they’re going to want it to be improved and they’re going to want to have a say.” After all, commitments made now, from resource exploitation to military action, will influence the coming years and decades for youth all over the country. Wouldn’t it be fair to consult us too?
Lowering the voting age is not a radical proposition: in March 2018, Malta became the second country in the European Union to lower its voting age to sixteen, following in the footsteps of Austria’s decision in 2007.
A lower voting age could also solve other problems. Some international studies have shown that youth between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one could have higher turnout rates than those between eighteen and thirty. And, once people begin voting, they tend to remain engaged with politics and continue to vote throughout their lives. Bringing in a wider pool of prospective voters could be a way of boosting our turnouts, especially when it comes to the number of younger citizens—54 percent of youth aged eighteen to twenty-four voted in the 2019 election compared to 79 percent of people aged sixty-five to seventy-four according to Elections Canada. I saw some of this apathy first hand when door knocking for various candidates in the recent election. Most of the people I spoke with informed me that they wouldn’t be voting at all, simply because they had no interest.
Canada has lowered its federal voting age before. Prior to 1970, those going to the ballot box had to be twenty-one. The government was able to recognize the value in giving younger Canadians a voice, and it’s time they recognized that once again. Anyone who is freaked out by the idea of sixteen-year-olds voting needs to ask themselves why. Young people have hopes for the future and concerns about the present. We also have ideas for how our country should be run. “This issue is often framed as us giving something to young people, giving sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds the right to participate in a system,” says Bachrach. “I like to flip that on its head a little bit and instead think about what young people have to offer Canada.”
And, as Bachrach says, “there’s never been a more important time to expand the conversation and bring people into our democratic process and ensure their voices are being heard.”
Life experience should not be a factor in who has the right to vote. The age cut-off is arbitrary, and we must recognize it as such. Canada needs fresh ideas and new perspectives if it hopes to move forward as a country— and it’s time for the adults in the room to recognize this fact.