September 4 2018 —
Should 16-year-olds be allowed to vote in municipal elections? That’s the questions Calgary city council asked the province of Alberta to explore after voting 7–6 in favour of carrying on the conversation.
The idea was proposed by Ward 5 Coun. George Chahal, who argued that a lower voting age would engage young Calgarians with civic issues and lead to forming long-term voting habits.
Chahal’s argument has merit — there’s plenty of research that links future voter participation to prior participation. Allowing and encouraging those under 18 to vote could immediately instil a sense of electoral responsibility in them. But it glosses over the main reason 16-year-olds deserve the right to vote — they, like any other citizen, are affected by the decisions made by the political bodies that govern the jurisdictions they live in and as such should have a say in how those bodies are run.
The reasons why young people should have a right to vote have nothing to do with responsibility or maturity, as many proponents of a lowered voting age argue. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi told Postmedia reporters that he’s “met some incredibly brilliant high-school students between 16- and 18-[years-old]” when discussing a younger voting age.
Brilliance should not factor into the equation when discussing who deserves a right to vote. Yes, many 16- and 17-year-olds would be intelligent and informed voters, but many wouldn’t. The exact same statement can be applied to any demographic, but no one is arguing to take voting rights away from voters who aren’t deemed fit to vote.
The same goes for the argument that people under 18 shouldn’t be able to vote because they don’t pay taxes, one made by councillors including Ward 14’s Peter Demong. Even discounting the fact that Albertans can legally work full-time and pay tax on their income from age 15, implying that young people don’t deserve a say in who represents them and how their public money is spent because of their working and living conditions is a classist argument that would never hold water when applied to voters over the age of 18.
At 16, Albertans can do a lot of things. They can work full-time jobs and pay taxes on their income, drive without supervision and even join the military. They should be able to add voting to that list, not because of the responsibility or maturity demonstrated by any of their existing rights but because they are stakeholders in their communities.
The municipal issues that affect young Calgarians are countless. The most obvious is the management of the Calgary Board of Education, which is governed by elected members of the Board of Trustees. If high-school students had the right to vote, they could have a say in who governs their schools. Trustee candidates would have to be accountable not only to current voters, nearly all of whom are no longer part of Calgary’s public school system, but also to the students who actually attend these institutions.
There’s also a good argument to be made that young Calgarians should vote when the city is slated to go to the polls on Nov. 13 to vote in a plebiscite on Calgary pursuing an Olympic bid. Whether or not Calgary formulates a bid will certainly affect teenage Calgarians, who will be adults by the time the 2026 Olympics actually roll around.
It’s great that city council moved to ask the province to examine a lower voting age. But it’s important to recognize that it’s a person’s intrinsic value as a member of a civic society that merits their right to vote, not their maturity, intelligence or tax-paying status.
— Jason Herring, Gauntlet Editorial Board