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Vote at 16? Sure — With One String Attached

If schools produce informed, critical young voters, we all win.

By Crawford Kilian 23 Mar 2018 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Suddenly, the idea of extending the franchise to 16-year-olds is catching on everywhere.

It’s being promoted in New Zealand as a logical extension of what 16-year-olds already can do: “get a driver’s licence, leave school, get married (with consent), consent to sex, obtain a gun licence, and give medical consent.”

Here in Canada, acting chief electoral officer Stéphane Perrault, says the vote at 16 is “worth considering… We know that Canadians who vote early in their lifetime will continue to vote, and those who don’t vote in the first few elections will tend not to vote later on.”

And right here in B.C., Green Party leader Andrew Weaver has just introduced legislation to give our teenagers the vote. Premier John Horgan isn’t rejecting the idea out of hand. “I believe that if we can get more people involved in politics, that’s a good thing,” he said. “I believe that young people are very much focused on learning and understanding our political process.”

Having spent 40 years teaching people not much older than 16, I think it’s a good idea. Granted, adolescents in groups don’t always exude calm rationality. And despite Horgan’s praise, teenagers often seem cynical and alienated from politics.

But that alienation stems directly from finding themselves with almost no say in their education or any other aspect of their lives. By the time most kids graduate from high school, education is the only major government agency they’ve dealt with — and many of them haven’t really enjoyed the experience. Their future government encounters may involve traffic cops, income and property taxes, municipal business permits and bylaw officers. Few of such encounters will leave them with a sense of enhanced personal freedom.

So it’s not surprising that many young people prefer to have as little as possible to do with government, and that includes voting. The idea that they are citizens, and therefore shareholders in the democratic enterprise, simply doesn’t sink in. They would rather leave politics to the keeners and geeks and seniors who make such a fuss about it.

Sometimes, though, learning the hard way is learning the best way. The shootings on Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, ignited an explosive reaction in the students who survived. With a style and expertise that must have shocked and appalled the political operators and pundits, teenagers like Emma González, Cameron Kasky, and David Hogg developed and launched a political movement that set the establishment back on its heels.

Scary alien mutants

The #MarchForOurLives movement is set to descend on Washington and many other American cities tomorrow, and more demonstrations will follow. The Stoneman Douglas kids are a whole new political species; to the operators and pundits, they must look like the Midwich Cuckoos — scary alien mutants.

Actually, they’re more like Camila Vallejo, the Chilean student radical who grew from student leader to a highly proficient politician. Vallejo and her political colleagues saw the resemblance and expressed their support for the Stoneman Douglas students soon after the shootings.

And that must really scare the established political class — a handful of teenagers who can kick the NRA’s ass, and who could dominate American politics for the next 50 years.

If Stoneman Douglas can suffer a random tragedy and respond with kids like these, it’s likely that other teenagers can at least handle the vote. Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University, recently argued in the New York Times that 16-year-olds are quite capable of what he calls “cold cognition.”

Cold cognition is cool

“Cold cognitive abilities are those we use when we are in a calm situation, when we are by ourselves and have time to deliberate and when the most important skill is the ability to reason logically with facts,” Steinberg wrote. “Voting is a good example of this sort of situation.”

“Studies of cold cognition have shown that the skills necessary to make informed decisions are firmly in place by 16. By that age, adolescents can gather and process information, weigh pros and cons, reason logically with facts and take time before making a decision. Teenagers may sometimes make bad choices, but statistically speaking they do not make them any more often than adults do.”

So I support allowing 16-year-olds to vote — with one string attached. Students should not only take social studies (as they are required to in the B.C. curriculum); those courses should include close study of the Canadian electoral system and plenty of training in critical thinking and media literacy to intensify their cold cognition.

Calling BS on the BS merchants

So students could start studying the system by 13 or 14, and reach voting age at 16 with more political understanding than many adults. As well-trained critical thinkers, they’d have highly sensitive BS detectors.

And as first-time voters, they could expect a lot of political BS to be flung their way. But wise politicians would deal with them fairly and honestly, in hopes of winning lifelong supporters. In the 2016 Census, Canada had at least 800,000 persons aged 16 and 17. B.C. had 92,000. They would have respectable clout, and could, for example, put new pressure on governments to improve job prospects, lower tuition fees and make housing truly affordable.

Governments that actually delivered on such demands would enjoy some surprised support from older, more cynical voters as well.

What about the seniors, who famously vote in far larger numbers than young people now do? They should be delighted to see their grandchildren casting ballots. Kids with better jobs, cheaper educations and affordable housing will be earning more, spending more and paying more in taxes that will help support their elders.

Give 16- and 17-year-olds the vote, make sure they understand what’s at stake, and encourage them to call BS when they smell it. They won’t do any worse than the rest of us do, and they may do a lot better.

Two paragraphs were removed from the original version of this story.  [Tyee]

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