Section 3 of the Charter of Rights declares that “every citizen of Canada” has the right to vote in provincial and federal elections. Section 3 of the Canada Elections Act, on the other hand, restricts the right to vote to “every person who is a Canadian citizen and is 18 years of age or older on polling day.” [Emphasis added.]
If that strikes you as a contradiction then you will be in sympathy with a lawsuit launched in Ontario Superior Court by 13 children aged 12 and up arguing that the voting age requirement should be removed from the law.
Well, the children aren’t actually the ones behind it: The suit is backed by Children First Canada, a charity whose directors give every appearance of being over 18, and will be argued by lawyers for Justice for Children and Youth and the David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights, adults all. But still: It’s all about #Votes4Kids!
Meanwhile, Senator Marilou McPhedran has introduced a bill in the Senate (or rather reintroduced, a previous version having died with the last Parliament) that would lower the voting age from 18 years to 16. Should her bill become law, Canada would become one of the very few countries in the world that allows 16-year-olds to vote, joining Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Cuba, Ecuador, Argentina, Brazil, Scotland and Austria.
The two initiatives are often presented as companion pieces. In fact they are at odds with one another: While Ms. McPhedran’s bill would lower the voting age, the Children First lawsuit would abolish it altogether.
Advocates for lowering the voting age argue that children of 16 are as capable as adults of making complex decisions about the government of the country. But advocates for abolishing it argue that mental or emotional capacity is irrelevant: all that matters is standing. Children are as much affected by the results of an election as adults; ergo, they deserve a voice in it.
Abolitionists at least have the virtue of consistency. If there is no meaningful distinction in reasoning ability between age 16 and 18, is there any greater distinction between 14 and 16? Or between 12 and 14? Or 10 and 12? If 18 is considered an arbitrary cut-off, how is 16 any less arbitrary?
Indeed, have a read of some of the many pieces on the subject, and you find all manner of different ages proposed: from the writer in the Washington Post arguing for a voting age of 13, to the political scientist Jonathan Bernstein suggesting it should be as low as 12, to the head of the politics department at Cambridge University, David Runciman, who thinks six is about right.
Conversely, if reasoning capacity is the appropriate criterion, what’s the argument against raising the voting age? There is a substantial body of research to show the brain is still developing up to about the age of 25. Maybe that should be the line.
But in fact we do not impose any similar test of intellectual capacity on adult voters. You can vote if you are illiterate, or mentally ill, or drunk, or senescent: the only requirement is that you be 18 and a citizen. If we aren’t willing to discriminate between adults in this regard, it’s unclear why we should be any more willing to discriminate between adults and children – or between children of different ages.
The implication is that any child, of any age, should be allowed to vote. As the demographer Lyman Stone argues in The New York Times, “the minimum voting age should be zero.”
But while simply abolishing the voting age altogether might seem to resolve these inconsistencies, it only creates others.
The right to vote, first, is not the only way in which children are treated differently in law. On any number of fronts – from the ability to consent to sex, to the right to drink or do drugs, to eligibility for combat service, to whether they should be tried in adult court – children are assigned a distinct legal status, in explicit recognition of their lesser decision-making capacity. I don’t see many abolitionists arguing for doing away with these distinctions.
That’s different, you will say: these are decisions that directly affect the child’s welfare. Just so. No doubt different standards should apply in different situations – but it is hard to see why the standard should be higher for decisions that affect only the individual child than for decisions that affect everybody. Granted, one vote has little impact one way or another; only we are not talking about giving the vote to one child, but to all of them.
A second inconsistency: If cognitive ability is entirely irrelevant, if the only eligibility test that should apply to the right to vote in elections is that one is affected by the result, what is the argument for restricting it to children? Why not pets? Or plants? Or generations yet unborn?
There is no easy way around these contradictions. The judgment call that human societies around the world have made is that cognitive ability should matter up to a point, but only up to that point: the point at which children become adults. Children are assigned, not only different rights from adults, but also different responsibilities – they are denied the right to vote for the same reason that they are not tried in adult court.
Is there a way to square the circle – to represent the child’s interests in the democratic process, without giving the vote to toddlers? Perhaps. It is called Demeny voting, after the demographer Paul Demeny, who first proposed it. In brief, the idea is to let parents vote on behalf of each of their children, in the same way as parents act on their children’s behalf in other matters. So a family of four would have four votes; each of the parents would be given an extra half-vote for each of their children.
Failing that, the status quo seems the least bad option. There are worse forms of discrimination, after all. For the child who may not vote today is the adult who may vote tomorrow.
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