David Coon says voting at 16 is ‘completely appropriate’ (CBC News)
Green Party Leader David Coon says his bill to drop the voting age to 16 would give young people an immediate voice in the future direction of the province but it could also foster a long-term culture of political engagement.
New Brunswick’s voter turnout declined in September’s election to 65.4 per cent from 69.6 per cent in 2010, which is a far cry from the voter turnout levels that were above 80 per cent from 1967 to 1991.
When Coon was campaigning in the Fredericton South riding, he reached out to young people on the campuses of the University of New Brunswick and St. Thomas University to help make him the first non-Liberal or Tory in the legislature since 2005.
He said his campaign proves youth are ready to become engaged in the political process, so it’s time to explore ways to open the door to more political involvement at a younger age.
“It seems completely appropriate that 16 and 17-years-olds should have the ability to vote and have a say in the future of this province,” Coon said in an interview on Thursday.
“Young people want to have a voice and many are very frustrated that they don’t have a voice. This is one way that we can give them a voice, through the electoral franchise,” the Green party leader added.
Coon’s bill was introduced on Thursday and it is expected to be debated when the legislature resumes in 2015.
The bill, if passed, would see 16-year-olds given the right to cast a ballot in the next provincial election, which will be held in 2018.
However, Coon’s bill does not change the Municipal Elections Act, which also sets 18 as the minimum age for voting. New Brunswick’s next round of municipal elections is slated for 2016.
Elections New Brunswick has experimented with different initiatives to reach out to younger voters, such as locating special polls on university and college campuses.
The agency does not regularly track the number of voters by their age. However, voter turnout was broken down by age following the 2006 election.
In that election, 50 per cent of the 38,635 electors between the ages of 18 and 24 voted compared to 49.3 per cent of the electors between the ages of 25 to 34.
The percentage of people voting steadily increased after a person turned 35. The voter participation levels climbed from 63.2 per cent for voters between 35 and 44 all the way to 79.6 per cent for voters between 65 and 85.
Eighteen is the most common voting age in democracies. Austria lowered the voting age to 16 in 2007. Brazil has also dropped the voting age to 16.
Creating a cohort of new voters
J.P. Lewis, a political scientist at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, said it isn’t a surprise to see the proposal from the Greens, a party that aims to attract younger voters to the system.
Lewis said it is difficult to gauge whether Coon’s bill would actually achieve its objective of encouraging more teens to make their way to a ballot box given the lack of other countries using a lower voting age.
“But I think there is a strong argument to be made that if you lower the voting age, you create a cohort of 16 to 18-year-olds, that is a captive audience,” Lewis said.
“They are exposed to civic education and awareness programs at school and through curriculum and are most likely living at home where some argue a young voter could be socialized and develop the habit of voting by going to vote with their parents.”
The Elections Act revision is the first piece of legislation that the Green MLA has introduced.
Coon will need help from other political parties for it to survive in the legislature.
Liberals will study bill
Coon said he’s had preliminary conversations with other MLAs, but he has no idea whether either the Liberals or the Progressive Conservatives will back his bill when it comes to voting.
Government House leader Hédard Albert said the Liberals will study Coon’s legislation.
‘If the members on either side of the House vote against it, they will have a lot of explaining to do to the youth of this province.’– Green Party Leader David Coon
The Liberals did not reject the idea of working with the Green leader on improving the number of voters who show up at the polls every four years.
“While this issue isn’t currently on our list of priorities, we have committed to investigating means to improve participation in democracy. That includes such means as preferential ballots and online voting,” Albert said.
The UNB political scientist said it’s unlikely that either of the traditional parties will support Coon’s legislation.
However, Lewis said it would be an opportunity for the province’s political parties to work together to raise the voter turnout.
“This would be an interesting item for either party to champion, considering declining voter turnouts and would definitely shine a positive spotlight on New Brunswick in showing some progressive approaches to dealing with the turnout problem which doesn’t appear to be getting any better,” Lewis said.
If the bill is stalled or defeated in 2015, the Green MLA said the traditional parties will need to explain to the province’s youth why they turned their back on them.
“If the members on either side of the House vote against it, they will have a lot of explaining to do to the youth of this province,” he said.
“I will continue to champion the engagement of youth in the politics of this province.”