‘I want to make a change’: Teen leads battle to lower B.C. voting age

Liam Christy is 16 and fighting for the right to vote in B.C.

The Grade 11 student at Westsyde Secondary in Kamloops knows it will be tough to convince adults who question whether a 16- or 17-year-old is mature enough, intelligent enough or engaged enough to vote, but he thinks teens have proven they’re more than ready.

“Obviously, I want to make a change,” he said. “(I) am definitely educated enough to make that decision.”

Christy said he’s been politically engaged “for a long time” but became dedicated to the voting change last semester when his social studies teacher, Jeremy Reid, asked his students in discuss Green Leader Andrew Weaver’s private member’s bill to lower the voting age to 16.

Last week, Weaver introduced his bill for a third time and Premier John Horgan said he would take a look at it. The B.C. Liberals did not return requests for comment.

Christy believes engaging British Columbians in the electoral process while they’re still learning about politics and government in high school could turn them into lifelong voters. He’s seen political savvy among peers who in recent elections explained to their parents the parties’ platforms, he said. On Wednesday, students brought their own 200-signature petition to lower the voting age to their local MLA.

Christy worries about low turnout among young eligible voters and wants to see it increase through earlier political engagement. Only 56.2 per cent of registered voters ages 18-24 went to the polls during the 2017 B.C. election, though that was up from 47.9 per cent in 2013.

“A lot of adults think we don’t care. The people who don’t care don’t participate … just like adults,” he said.

Before 1970, 21 was the minimum age to vote federally in Canada. When it was proposed that the age be lowered to 18, “concern was expressed by some as to whether 18-year-olds were sufficiently well informed or mature to vote responsibly,” according to a Library of Parliament report.

But Canadian society already bestows plenty of responsibility upon teens — 15-year-olds are “working aged,” 16-year-olds can legally consent to sex and get a driver’s licence, and 17-year-olds can join the military.

In the U.S., teens are leading a movement for gun law reform in response to school shootings, including the one that left 17 dead at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida last month. Austria, Argentina, Brazil, Cuba and Scotland have given 16-year-olds the vote.

“(Teens) are being underestimated,” said Reid, Christy’s teacher. “I certainly run into lots that are very politically aware and perhaps more than some adults. They have increasing amounts of responsibilities.”

Reid said that from a teacher’s perspective, lowering the age is a good idea because high school students are already engaged in politics and government in the classroom in Grade 11. Before the last provincial election, his own students created an ebook full of essays on the fentanyl crisis, minimum wage, cannabis legalization, tuition costs, energy and mining.

“It would make the learning in the classroom more real-world,” he said.

Patrick Smith, a professor of political science at Simon Fraser University, believes the benefits of lowering the voting age outweigh any perceived costs.

“The best predictor of voting and the interest in voting is if you’ve voted in the past,” he said. “If we want to have a healthier democratic future, we need to engage youth and we need to engage them sooner.”

Smith said lowering the age has the potential of “re-energizing” elections with a demographic showing a healthy interest in politics. By lowering the age to 16, they will become voters before they leave home for university, to go travelling or to find full-time work, which may make registering them more difficult.

Other regions where the voting age was lowered haven’t been faced with “dramatic changes,” Smith said.

“It’s not as if there was a takeover of mad teenagers or anything,” he said. “I think their political process is reasonably stable.”

Another approach could be to drop the voting registration age to 16 and keep the voting age at 18, which B.C.’s chief electoral officer recommended in a report to legislators in 2014.

“Permitting early registration at the age of 16 would permit Elections B.C. to work with schools and the driver licensing program to ensure maximum exposure to the registration process for young voters,” Keith Archer wrote in his report.

“Many high school teachers have expressed support for this concept as it would allow meaningful action by their students in the context of civics education. Improving the accessibility of registration opportunities for youth may have a longer term effect on voter engagement and turnout.”

B.C. Green party Leader Andrew Weaver. CHAD HIPOLITO / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Weaver, who met Reid’s students last year, laughed off the suggestion that 16- and 17-year-olds aren’t educated or mature enough to vote. He became convinced this was untrue after a request for public input while drafting his previous voting-age bills, he said in an interview.

“The most articulate, well-informed, rational arguments were put forward by the youth, who thought about their responses, who thought about the issues,” Weaver said. “(The) most inarticulate, knee-jerk rhetoric came from adults.”

Weaver said the same negative rhetoric about teen voters was used in the past in attempts to block women and Indigenous people from getting the vote. He dismissed the argument that lowering the voting age is a ploy to lure more progressive-leaning youth to the polls.

“We tax kids at the age of 16 and they have no representation,” he said. “We know that youth are the ones that inherit the consequences of the decisions we make. We know that encouraging participation in democracy is good for democracy and we know that this is about giving people a voice.”

'I want to make a change': Teen leads battle to lower B.C. voting age