Sweet 16 may give youth in New Brunswick more than just the right to drive a car if a bill tabled by MLA David Coon is passed by the Legislative Assembly.
On Dec. 18, Coon tabled a bill to lower the voting age to 16. If the bill is passed, New Brunswick will be the first province in Canada to allow 16 year olds to vote.
“What I’m hearing from young people, aged 16 and 17, is they are frustrated their voices aren’t heard and being able to vote is one way of engaging 16 and 17 year olds in helping to determine what kind of New Brunswick we want in the future,” Coon said.
Coon hopes that by lowering the voting age, it will increase the voter turnout of the 18 to 35 demographic — an age bracket that traditionally has a lower presence at the polls.
“From 18 to 35, voter turnout is pretty low relative to 35 and up, and so this would help change that. The point is that the evidence from elsewhere is that if people start voting from 16 and 17 … it’s adopted as a regular practice so that through their twenties and thirties they’re still voting.”
But Coon also said that this can only be achieved if it is coupled with a strong civics program in the public school system.
Kevin Collins, a third-year political science student at UNB, agrees.
“Expanding the franchise, in terms of lower age restrictions, will undoubtedly increase the number of students who cast ballots in future provincial election; it will do this by expanding the number of people who are able to vote,” Collins said.
“However, it fails to directly address the issue of the declining proportion of those who possess the right to vote who actually choose to exercise their right.”
Collins said the root of the issue of low student voter turnout lies in their knowledge of the political system.
“A well-informed electorate is key to ensuring the effectiveness of a democracy, and our electorate, especially students, is, to a large degree, poorly informed,” he said.
“The first step in fixing the problem is reforming the civic education students receive in public secondary schools; all students ought to be compelled to take civics classes in order to graduate from high school.”
However, according to Collins, the bill is a promising first step.
“Mr. Coon’s proposed legislation is a step in the right direction in terms of addressing declining voter turnout numbers, but it is only a step; more needs to be done in order to directly address the root causes of political apathy,” said Collins.
The bill is the first that Coon has tabled in the Legislative Assembly. It must pass a second and third reading before it changes the New Brunswick Elections Act.
“My experience from the campaign in Fredericton South and certainly there were lots of 16 and 17 year olds engaged and paying attention and interested,” Coon said.
“I don’t see why [not lower the voting age] when in New Brunswick you’re 16, you can get a licence, the province treats you as an adult essentially.”