Why kids should have the vote

By: Joseph Kornelsen

It used to be considered normal for a kid to punch another kid in the schoolyard. Not anymore. Manitoba’s anti-bullying legislation will hold young people accountable for both physical and verbal bullying. With these responsibilities should come more rights.

Bill 18 is fairly typical legislation. There is nothing unique about the Government of Manitoba wanting to regulate the relationships of its citizens.

The new bullying legislation will clearly define bullying and will compel schools to come up with standardized courses of action as well as gradations in punishment for repeat offences. Although young people will be consulted in this process, they had no say in the government that created the bill.

Legislation and changing social attitudes toward young people have implied our growing confidence in them, but most people still believe they should not have the right to participate in electing their leaders. It’s time to change that. It’s time to give young people the right to vote.

The clearest evidence of society’s expectations of young people is demonstrated in the law.

Going after bullying among youths is really a continuation of the practice of ending bullying among adults last century. Workplace standards legislation, civil rights legislation and the replacement of charity with government-funded welfare were all ways that we fought bullying among adults. Now we believe this kind of legislation is necessary for young people.

In the last 30 years, there has also been a strong push toward holding young people more accountable for breaking the law. In the old days, kids between 12 and 16 years old were not subject to the Criminal Code and could be tried and sentenced arbitrarily. But in 1983 kids were given rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that made them subject to standardized sentencing. People under the age of 18 could be given maximum sentences of three years. With strong societal pressure, the maximum sentence for youth was increased to 10 years and, in 2003, the age that violent or repeat offenders could be tried as adults was lowered to 14.

In other words, we believe 14-year -olds have the agency to make decisions that could land them life in prison.

And why shouldn’t we expect that from 14-year-olds? By 12, kids can be left in charge of younger kids for money – they can be professional caregivers. By 15, young people are often expected to get their own job, which means they have taxpayer status. And by 16, we allow them to share the highways with us.

Despite all of this, it is still argued that young people aren’t smart enough or mature enough to vote—as if adults feel that they themselves somehow are. So let’s consider some things kids believe:

  • Some kids are optimists. They believe that people play fair and, when they don’t, the system appropriately punishes them. It just so happens that Alan Greenspan, Federal Reserve chairman and adult, spent the ‘90s deregulating the American banking sector because he believed they would play fair and the system would punish them if they didn’t.
  • Some kids are independent. They believe that no one can tell them what to do. The adults in the electoral base of the Conservative Party of Canada usually espouse that principle in all caps on the comments boards of major news websites.
  • And some kids are egalitarian. They think that there must be something wrong when hard working people are poor. The adult, John Maynard Keynes, became the most respected economist in the world arguing that structural failures in economies were a significant factor in unemployment.

Whether these beliefs are right or wrong, there is no doubt that kids and adults share them.

Kids are probably better at actually converting those opinions into an appropriate vote, too.

Fresh from taking Grade 9 civics, 15-year-olds probably understand the electoral system better than many adults. Not only that, they still believe in the process. Adults have become cynical and whiny about the process because they have forgotten how to compromise—a value regularly taught in grade school.

And it’s not like there aren’t government programs that kids participate in regularly. Kids use the schools, they ride public transit, and they walk on the sidewalks. They might have something to say about these issues. Public services like the Winnipeg health centre Klinic are specifically directed at young people. They might have an opinion if there were a change to Klinic’s funding.

Of course, the most important issue that kids might have an opinion on is war, because they will be the ones that die in it. It was the Second World War that brought the voting age down from 21 to 18 in Europe. In the United States, it was the Vietnam War draft that led to matching the age of suffrage to the age of mandatory military service (Canada lowered its voting age from 21 to 18 in 1971, shortly after the United States). But 18 isn’t low enough. The war in Afghanistan lasted 10 years and many people turned 18 after it started. If talk of a war draft came up, young people might be very interested in punishing or rewarding certain politicians over that issue.

Ultimately, it is probably fear that prevents us from enfranchising the kids.

We want to be able to assert our power against our perceived enemies but we know we will need the lives of our children to make our threats against other states credible. We want to burn as much oil as technology allows, pollute all the lakes, and cancel any public scientific research because to do otherwise would make us less wealthy. If we gave young people the vote, they might take away our current happiness to help ensure they can still live happily when they’re raising their own children 20 years from now.

By the age of 15 people can work, pay taxes, take care of young people and go to jail for life. At a minimum, we should enfranchise young people at that age.

Young people have a stake in society, in government and in the future. Bill 18 is only one way that we recognize their abilities and their responsibility. We should admit that we have no less faith in them than we do the rest of the adults we live with.