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Electoral Insight – Youth Participation in Elections

Electoral Insight – July 2003

How Old Is Old Enough to Vote? Youth Participation in Society

How Old Is Old Enough to Vote? Youth Participation in Society

Raymond Hudon
Professor, Department of Political Science, Université Laval

Bernard Fournier
Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Memorial University of Newfoundland

According to a reductionist definition, a democratic society is a society that has its citizens participate in major collective decisions by granting the right to vote. Based on this perspective, young electors, who are supposed to be less likely to show up at the polling station, have regularly been the subject of a whole range of questions. We are interested here in a specific aspect of the general problem: allowing 16-year-olds to vote.

For over a decade, the subject has surfaced and resurfaced, without, however, leading to any change in the rules. In 1990, the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing (Lortie Commission) studied the question and commissioned specific research. Footnote 1 At the final stage of writing their report, the members of the Commission decided against proposing that the voting age be lowered. In the years that followed, the question was raised again, occasionally sustaining somewhat limited debate. Footnote 2 Just recently, Quebec's Estates General on the Reform of Democratic Institutions considered the idea of lowering the voting age, but dismissed it: 58 percent of the participants opposed it. However, during its most recent policy conference, in March 2003, the Parti Québécois included in its program a referendum on the advisability of giving the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds.

This is not, of course, a burning issue; but it is not out of the realm of possibility either. Given the circumstances, it is worth putting this subject in perspective by recalling some of the milestones that have marked the debates and the changes made to the age at which we are entitled to exercise our civil rights by voting. After noting that the decisions are not made on the basis of absolute and purely rational criteria, we bring into the discussion those most immediately concerned, young people between 16 and 18. We do so using the results of two surveys, conducted in 1990 and 1998. Footnote 3 Although they cannot be used to determine definitive positions, the observations made shed some light and provide at least some food for thought.

Age, a socio-historical construct

Age is a socio-historical construct, the variants of which are a function of the times and social contexts. The changes in the voting age illustrate this well.

In Canada, electoral rights have evolved considerably since the establishment of the first modern electoral system. Footnote 4 The progress seems less obvious in the case of the threshold for the age of majority: set at 21 at the time of Confederation, it has been changed only once at the federal level, in 1970. Footnote 5 The disappearance of the poll tax, the abolition of discrimination based on sex or racial origin and the lowering of the age of majority all reflect a desire to expand the recognition of citizen authority.

Have the changes been rational? Were they, for example, brought about by some positive change in civil or criminal law producing a review of the right to vote? To take one case, a study of the French parliamentary debates Footnote 6 shows both that the same arguments recur and that they can easily be used by either side, to support or oppose lowering the voting age. In the end, the historical analysis reveals that the observed changes result primarily from political will, usually within Parliament, and with no real public debate.

This same ambivalence is found today in newspaper articles, on Internet sites on democracy, and in Parliament. Footnote 7 For some, the enthusiasm and zeal of the "young" would justify lowering the voting age to the benefit of society as a whole; others, on the contrary, associate the zeal of youth with excessive high spirits and an inexperience that calls for the greatest caution. The young are simply "not ready" to vote! The reversibility of the arguments tends to show the strictly political – although not partisan Footnote 8 – nature of the decisions about lowering the voting age. Politics may not be typically irrational, but it implies choices sometimes made more or less independently of public opinion.

There are, in fact, objective reasons for lowering the voting age today. Here is what those most concerned think.

"Am I ready to vote?"

Although the question did not take quite this form, this was, for all practical purposes, what the students of two Quebec cities surveyed in 1990 and 1998 (see Methodological Note) had to ask themselves. Their answers follow, cross-referenced to certain factors that illuminate them from a variety of angles. We will comment on them briefly, before concluding with some general thoughts on the political participation of young people.

Table 1: Opinions on the Right to Vote at 16 Years of Age
(percentages)*
Right to vote at 16 1990 survey 1998 survey
Agree 44.0 45.5
Disagree 53.6 54.5
N 832 847

* The total for the 1990 survey does not equal 100%, because 2.4% of the subjects did not answer this question. In all the other tables, however, the distributions are based on the number of answers actually recorded. Only the results of those respondents who said they agreed with the question or statement are reported there.


Table 1 shows that, in both 1990 and 1998, a majority of the students surveyed were against giving the vote to 16-year-olds. Reflecting the received wisdom that young women are less interested in politics, the female students were more categorically against the idea than their male counterparts, with the gap even growing from 1990 to 1998. In fact, the idea gained a favourable majority among the boys (going from 47.0 percent to 51.9 percent), while the opposition among the girls gained a few points (from 57.3 percent to 59.3 percent). It can also be seen that opposition to the idea increases with age (Table 2), although the gap seems to narrow over time: while 2.4 percent fewer Secondary IV students supported the idea in 1998, 2.5 percent more Secondary V students did. Of relatively limited political significance, it is reasonable to think that these initial results become more meaningful when the opinions are cross-referenced with other factors.

Table 2: Right to Vote at 16
Opinions by Level of Education
(percentages)
Right to vote at 16 Secondary IV
(1990 survey)
Secondary V
(1990 survey)
Secondary IV
(1998 survey)
Secondary V
(1998 survey)
Agree 49.7 40.9 47.3 43.4
N 384 428 427 410

It is logical to think that a greater interest in politics or a sense that one is more affected by government decisions would make one more receptive to the proposal to give 16-year-olds the vote. And indeed, although a majority still opposed the suggestion, those who were very or somewhat interested in politics were less opposed than those who were slightly or not at all interested (Table 3). Between 1990 and 1998, however, the difference increased; those most interested agreed with the idea by a slight majority, while those least interested were yet a bit more opposed. The partisans and opponents of the vote for 16-year-olds could also be classified depending on whether they felt affected (very often or often) or not (not very often or never) by government decisions.

Table 3: Right to Vote at 16
Opinions by Degree of Interest in Politics
(percentages)
Right to vote at 16 A lot/Somewhat
(1990 survey)
Little/Not at all
(1990 survey)
A lot/Somewhat
(1998 survey)
Little/Not at all
(1998 survey)
Agree 46.5 43.9 51.3 41.5
N 355 456 343 491

Table 4: Right to Vote at 16
Opinions by Perceived Importance of Voting
(percentages)*
Right to vote at 16 You have to vote to make politics conform to your ideas
Agree completely/
Somewhat
Disagree completely/
Somewhat
Agree 45.5 41.5
N 726 82

* This question was asked only in 1990.


Another aspect of the resistance to the vote for 16-year-olds is that there is a majority opposed, even among those who feel that voting is important to "make politics conform to your ideas" (Table 4). In reality, the most decisive factor in determining support for or opposition to lowering the voting age is the degree of attachment to a political party, although this effect became less pronounced between 1990 and 1998 (Table 5). The latter observation is no doubt related to other data reported in Table 11: confidence in various "institutions," particularly the Church and political parties, diminished somewhat between 1990 and 1998; in contrast, it is interesting to note that confidence in elected officials increased by 2.7 percent.

Table 5: Right to Vote at 16
Opinions by Partisan Affinity
(percentages)
Right to vote at 16 Close to a party
(1990 survey)
Not close to a party
(1990 survey)
Close to a party
(1998 survey)
Not close to a party
(1998 survey)
Agree 56.3 41.1 52.5 42.5
N 213 599 238 598

Openness to the idea of 16-year-olds voting also varies with one's idea of what makes a "good citizen." Depending on whether you think ideal citizens are people who "mind their own business without making a fuss," or people who "are prepared to get involved and demonstrate to defend their ideas," you have a different attitude to lowering the voting age (Table 6). The same trends are evident when the opinions are linked to the contrast between citizens as people who feel it is more important to assert their rights, or people who feel it is more important to fulfill their duties (Table 7). Finally, the partisans of order, who want a good citizen to "respect the law under any circumstances," are proportionally more resistant to giving 16-year-olds the vote; this particular position is particularly conspicuous since there is majority support for the idea among those who feel that a good citizen need not obey the law when it seems unjust (Table 8).

Table 6: Right to Vote at 16
Opinions by Conception of a Good Citizen
(percentages)
Right to vote at 16 Good citizens mind their own business
(1990 survey)
Good citizens demonstrate for their ideas
(1990 survey)
Good citizens mind their own business
(1998 survey)
Good citizens demonstrate for their ideas
(1998 survey)
Agree 38.3 47.4 35.4 47.7
N 214 597 161 673

Table 7: Right to Vote at 16
Opinions by the Relation Between Rights and Duties of a Good Citizen
(percentages)
Right to vote at 16 Good citizens assert their rights
(1990 survey)
Good citizens fulfill their duties
(1990 survey)
Good citizens assert their rights
(1998 survey)
Good citizens fulfill their duties
(1998 survey)
Agree 46.8 41.8 47.4 39.0
N 547 263 620 210

Table 8: Right to Vote at 16
Opinions by Attitude to the Law
(percentages)
Right to vote at 16 A good citizen respects the law
(1990 survey)
A good citizen need not respect an unjust law
(1990 survey)
A good citizen respects the law
(1998 survey)
A good citizen need not respect an unjust law
(1998 survey)
Agree 43.0 53.4 38.9 52.0
N 646 163 422 415

In the same vein, it would seem only logical that a significant proportion of those in favour of the general status quo ("Our society does not need major changes") would oppose giving the vote to 16-year-olds (Table 9). It is more surprising that a majority, although a smaller majority, of the much larger group declaring itself in favour of change still oppose the idea.

Table 9: Right to Vote at 16
Opinions by Attitude to Change
(percentages)*
Right to vote at 16 Our society does not need major changes
Agree
(1990 survey)
Our society does not need major changes
Disagree
(1990 survey)
Our society does not need major changes
Agree completely/Somewhat
(1998 survey)
Our society does not need major changes
Disagree somewhat/Completely
(1998 survey)
Agree 34.3 46.3 40.2 46.8
N 108 697 169 666

* The choices of responses is different in 1990 (agree and disagree) and 1998 (agree completely/somewhat and disagree somewhat/completely).


In closing, there are two paradoxical results that we cannot leave unremarked. In 1990, participation in at least one association reduced the opposition to lowering the voting age (Table 10). What is surprising is that, in 1998, opposition was highest among those who do participate. Another surprise: proportionately more, and in some cases a majority, of those people with less confidence in a series of "institutions" (school, church, bureaucracy, politicians and media) accept the idea of 16-year-olds voting. One notable exception is the case of political parties in the 1990 survey (Table 11).

Table 10: Right to Vote at 16
Opinions by Participation in an Association
(percentages)
Right to vote at 16 Not involved in any
(1990 survey)
Involved in at least one
(1990 survey)
Not involved in any
(1998 survey)
Involved in at least one
(1998 survey)
Agree 40.5 47.8 47.7 44.4
N 304 508 258 579

Table 11: Right to Vote at 16
Opinions by Amount of Confidence in...
(percentages)*
Survey Right to vote at 16 School Church Bureaucracy Media Politicians Parties
Some Not much Some Not much Some Not much Some Not much Some Not much Some Not much
1990 Agree 41.6 61.6 41.8 49.7 42.4 50.6 44.9 45.2 41.7 47.2 45.9 44.6
N 671 138 488 320 536 269 483 325 345 458 283 522
1998 Agree 41.2 60.1 37.8 50.7 41.6 48.8 44.9 45.8 44.4 46.0 41.0 53.6
N 638 193 341 491 387 443 356 476 243 589 144 690

* The options available to the respondents were some confidence or not much confidence.


Conclusion


Every year, Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley meets with students attending the Forum for Young Canadians, in Ottawa, to talk to them about the electoral process.

To sum up, the results presented will undoubtedly feed the opposition to giving 16-year-olds the vote. Thus, it is worth noting that even a majority of those 16 to 18 do not want the vote for those under 18. It should also be noted that there is a connection between political involvement, certain conceptions of citizenship, and openness to such an idea.

On that basis, it would seem appropriate to concentrate on giving young people better preparation for exercising their civil rights, rather than on whether to give them the right to vote at 16 or 18. This concern is all the more pressing given that, for some time now, there seems to have been a disenchantment with politics. That being said, the issue should not be reduced simply to the observed drop in voter turnout in the past 12 to 15 years. This rather misleading reading would result in large part from a narrow conception of citizen involvement, which is no longer simply a question of voting.

However, while citizen involvement is not restricted to elections, these remain crucial to the democratic conduct of civic affairs. Democracy is, of course, a hands-on affair, but there is obviously no harm in supporting it with philosophical principles and "theoretical" knowledge, with an eye to producing better citizens for tomorrow.

Methodological Note

In May and June 1990, 832 students were surveyed in seven schools in the cities of Québec and Lévis. The sample was composed almost equally of boys and girls (52 percent and 48 percent), almost all between 16 and 18 (96 percent). A little less than a third (31 percent) of the respondents had been educated exclusively or primarily in private schools. In 1998, at the same point in the school year as in 1990, the same schools took part in the survey – with the exception of one private school, which was replaced by another private school. The survey was given to 847 students and, again, slightly more were boys than girls (53 percent and 47 percent), most between the ages of 16 and 18 (97 percent). Compared to the sample for 1990, the new sample had slightly fewer students from private schools (28 percent).

The composition of the sample is not random; the schools were chosen to reflect the social and cultural diversity of the region being studied. The survey was given during class time (generally a civics or history/geography class) and sometimes with the teacher present, which produced a very high response rate.

The surveys were funded by various sources, including in particular the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing (Lortie Commission) for the 1990 survey, and the Fonds Gérard-Dion of the Université Laval for the 1998 survey.

Notes

Footnote 1 See Kathy Megyery, ed., Youth in Canadian Politics: Participation and Involvement, Research Studies of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, Vol. 8 (Supply and Services Canada, Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1991).

Footnote 2 For example, see Raymond Hudon, "Le droit de vote à 16 ans. Une décision purement politique," Le Soleil (May 31, 1996) or "Evaluating the Pros and Cons. Are 16-Year-Olds Ready to Vote?" Elections Today Vol. 6, No. 3 (Fall 1996).

Footnote 3 See the methodological note.

Footnote 4 See J. Patrick Boyer, Political Rights: The Legal Framework of Elections in Canada (Toronto: Butterworths, 1981), pp. 129137.

Footnote 5 The right to vote at 18 was given in 1963 in Quebec and in 1971 in Ontario. The Military Voters Act, 1917, which set out the conditions for Canadian military personnel to vote during a conflict, gave all soldiers on active service the right to vote (http://www.archives.ca/05/0518/05180204/051802040102e.html). However, in 1993, Bill C-114 withdrew this right from soldiers under the age of 18.

Footnote 6 Before the adoption of the current age of majority of 18 in 1974, no less than a dozen constitutions or acts changed the age of majority between 1791 and 1875, some lowering it and some raising it.

Footnote 7 Peter Adams, Liberal Member of Parliament for Peterborough, Ontario, recently presented a private member's bill proposing that the voting age be lowered to 16 (Roy MacGregor, "At 16, teens are considered mature enough to drive, marry and work – so why not vote?" The Globe and Mail, March 4, 2003).

Footnote 8 Although as Patrick Boyer (Political Rights, p. 132) notes, such intentions can manifest themselves. Thus, giving the right to vote to new categories of electors in 1917, in the middle of a war, was essentially an effort to get the Conservative government of the day re-elected. On the other hand, withdrawing the right to vote from soldiers under the age of 18 was primarily an effort to standardize the electoral rights of all citizens.


Note: 

The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.