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Canada's Most Engaged Citizens Might Actually Be Too Young to Vote

09/05/2015 09:18 EDT | Updated 09/05/2016 05:59 EDT
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I heard a story from a teacher last week. I am not sure if it is true, but it sure made me think. The teacher, who teaches law and civics in a public high school, told me that during a previous election she had talked with her grade 10-12 students about citizenship, the process for voting in Canada and the important responsibility voters have.

The day after the election, one of her students came to her and said, "Miss! I did what you said, and you were right! The ballot looked just the way you said it would and it was easy to vote!"

A bit startled, my teacher friend asked her student how he had come to vote in the election. After all, he was fifteen years old and therefore did not have the right to do so.

"No problem, miss," he announced, "My older brother wasn't going to bother, so I just used his voter card. After all, we don't want a vote to go to waste, right?"

The teacher explained a bit MORE about the law to her student, and then went off to have a quiet chuckle. But after having laughed at her story, I have been thinking about it all week.

Why don't we let 15-year-olds vote? We educate them about citizenship from the time they are in elementary school. We have both government and civil society organizations working at instilling democratic values into school children. We wail and moan about ever-decreasing voter turnout. But we don't really look at young people as citizens. We think of them as citizens-in-waiting.

I guess this young man didn't want to wait. He clearly saw himself as knowledgeable and involved. When I ask other young people his age whether, if the law permitted them to do so, they would vote in the next election, a surprising number say they would certainly do so.

When I ask most people about the reason we have an age limit for voting, they tell me usual things: Young people are not mature enough to make such an important decision; young people would just vote at random or for a silly reason; young people are too easily influenced by their families, teachers and peers; young people are not knowledgeable -- and the one I really find hard to believe -- that young people just don't care.

But if look at each of these categories, we see quickly that most of us know adults who are easily influenced, not very knowledgeable, make foolish decisions with little forethought -- and who just don't care. There is nothing magic that happens at the age of 18. Young people who ARE like this may well remain apathetic and uninformed for the rest of their lives.

However, young people who are excited, who care and want to be engaged are not hard to find. How do we make sure they stay that way? It may no longer be enough to simply lecture them about civics. Could we let those who succeed in demonstrating their knowledge and interest have a right to vote? Would that be fair to those who really do care, but have difficulty demonstrating their knowledge? Perhaps all citizens should take the same test those not born in our country take before gaining citizenship. But then again, not many of us enjoy taking tests. Such a requirement could lower voter turnout even further.

Could we simply lower the voting age for certain limited purposes? In Scotland, they lowered the voting age to 16 for the national independence referendum, and more than 100,000 16- and 17-year-olds showed up to vote. When these young people were interviewed, they were knowledgeable and passionate. They were also disappointed that they would have to wait yet again to vote in a national election.

School is back in session next week and a national election is called for October. Let's ask our young people what they think about the issues and the candidates. My guess is that a lot of them really care. And they are getting impatient. Is it time?

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