Missing the Vote: Democratic Reform in BC

I’ve long thought that we should lower the voting age to 16, so thanks to Mike deJong for raising it in the BC Liberal leadership campaign. I speak from some experience, as I voted shortly after I turned 17 in the Ontario provincial election. I was a frosh in residence at Western and no one called me on it so I just voted like everyone else.

But let’s face it: the list of ills in our democracy is much longer than that a minor amendment to the voting age. We can let them vote, but why would they want to? The big problem of our day is that the people do not trust politicians, and they feel that the political system does not translate the will of the people into action. That is why voter turnout is down. So give 16-year-olds the vote, but also give them a reason to vote.

At a time when the public is engaged by the sheer deception over the HST, and another election lie from 2001, the promise not to sell BC Rail, democracy needs to be on the table. We need to be talking about ways to boost accountability, and root out crony capitalism, whether that be actual corruption (as in BC Rail) and the day-to-day influence of large corporations (who do not vote but seem to have no problem making “democracy” work for them). We need to think about what a more democratic society should look like and how our legislatures facilitate that democratic intercourse, rather than the highly centralized power of the PMO or Premier’s office.

Democracy is an evolving set of institutions, including legislatures and eligibility to vote representatives to those legislatures. But how those legislatures function (or do not) is of as much importance as who gets to vote. Electing a representative means little in our world of caucus solidarity – if our “representatives” do not get to speak their mind freely, we might as well just have a presidential-style election for premier. In BC, the legislature has only been sitting a few months of the year, so having a representative means even less than it used to.

At least, the evolving institutional framework has now brought forth a referendum on the HST, one small victory against despotism. Referenda are a rather crude form of democracy (as ballot initiatives in the US have demonstrated), but do have their place. But there are also participatory budgets, constituent assemblies, and other democratic engagement models to experiment with, some of which BC already has experience with.

As for the voting age, eligibility to vote was never clean cut: there have always been rules restricting suffrage. In the British tradition, the “vote” in the earliest Parliaments was with the nobility, who steadily wrested power from the king. That shifted to male property owners, then to all men, and to women. Periodically, religion has popped as a means for disqualification, so at times Catholics, Jews and others were banned from voting in England.

In Canada, women have only had the vote for less than 100 years, First Nations people for half that. The voting age was lowered to 18 forty years ago from 21. So lowering it to 16 is just one more step in the progress of democracy. Yet, every time that march has sought to take another step, the same patronizing arguments have been made in opposition. The most common complaint is 16-year-olds are too stupid/ignorant/inexperienced to vote. Substitute First Nations, blacks, Jews or women into that sentence, and have the rough history of arguments against suffrage.

True, teenage brains are flooded with hormones and they may lack real-life experience. But kids today are sophisticated and more prone to be idealistic that we can change things that are wrong with the world or our province. Because we teach them, so why deny them voice? Besides, it is their future that we are polluting, and they have a right to be angry about that at the ballot box. Even if you think 16 year-olds too dim, then I suggest we invest more in public education.

Lowering the voting age would, in fact, provide a great opportunity it would be to teach newly eligible voters about real issues during an election campaign, at school and at home. Just as 16-year-olds need a voice on climate change, they will have valid perspectives on the HST, fish farms and corruption. It would be great to see how 16 year olds would respond to reading David Basi’s personal memos.

But given the tragic state of our political system, it would be foolish to think that allowing 16 year-olds to vote is a panacea for voter participation. They may just get cynical faster — as long as politicians keep pulling betrayals like the HST and BC Rail. In the spirit of democracy I’d like to see Mike de Jong or any other Liberal candidate call for a full public inquiry into the corruption of the BC Rail affair (I’m betting the rot goes much deeper than just BC Rail).

If we want more democratic engagement we need institutions that are themselves more democratic. That is, we need a 21st century democracy, not a small tweak to the 19th century version. Younger voting ages should be part of that reform, but they are not the solution to an ailing system.

One comment

  • Mr. Lee:
    You are correct that changing the voting age will not be – cannot be – a panacea for the problems with poor democratic participation. The problem is endemic to the current structure of our so-called ‘democracy.’ THE problem with our democracy is that it is NOT a democracy – which Aristotle defines as government by the poor. We are living in an oligarchy, government by the rich. The disconnect between the people and the government is because governance is attending to the wants of the rich far more readily and easily than it is willing to attend to the needs of the not-rich. Thus, the majority are disenfranchised by default.

    In the 2004 BC Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform, I presented an argument that suggested an alternative to the voting system. And while I do not suggest that it is a panacea, I do argue that it removes the problems of the power of money to buy the governments who in turn repay their buyers in kind.

    If you are interested in it, it is posted at the Citizen’s Assembly web page @ On the Self-Corrupting Nature of Electioneering – And a Democratic Alternative.

    I have since slightly edited that argument, and that version can be found at my blog @
    On the Self-Corrupting Nature of Electioneering – And an Alternative;

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