Teens are responsible enough to drive, theyre mature enough to vote: NDP leader

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WINNIPEG - At 16, Canadian teenagers can drive a car, pay income taxes, apply for military college and even be tried in court as an adult.
So, many are wondering why - when they are entrusted with so many adult responsibilities - teenagers still don't have the right to cast a ballot for a school trustee, city councillor, provincial or federal representative.
"If we feel they are responsible to drive a car 100 kilometres down a highway - with an approaching car also travelling 100 kilometres and they're going to pass within three feet of each other - that's a lot of responsibility," said federal NDP Leader Jack Layton in an interview.
"If we think they're responsible to drive a car, they ought to be responsible enough to participate in driving the nation."
Ali Almaleki sees it the same way. The 17-year-old Winnipeg student can't see how he is considered old enough to join the military, yet not mature enough to cast a ballot.
Young people are more informed than ever before, thanks to modern technology which they can navigate better than their parents, he added.
"You can join the army and represent your country in that way so why can't you choose who to represent you on the world stage?" he said. "I don't see why it shouldn't be lowered."
There have been several failed attempts to lower the voting age in recent years.
Last year, Nova Scotia Liberals introduced a private member's bill to lower the voting age to 16 but it failed to win all-party support. In 2001, two Alberta teens unsuccessfully challenged the province's voting age in court.
Three years later, a Liberal backbencher introduced a private member's bill to lower the voting age to 16 but it was also defeated.
Giving teenagers the vote would engage them in the political process at a time when voter turnout is at an all-time low, Layton said. It would also force mainstream politicians to address the concerns of youth including the environment, he added.
Many of these teenagers are just as well informed, if not more so, than their parents, Layton said.
"Maturity is not necessarily a test we apply to everyone walking into a voting booth, no matter what their age," Layton said.
But at this point, the governing Conservatives say they have no intention of changing the law.
Steven Fletcher, minister of state for democratic reform, said there are enough ways for teens to become engaged in the electoral process.
He said many politicians now use social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, as well as blogs, to reach another generation of voters. Other teens volunteer on election campaigns even though they can't cast a ballot, he added.
"For major items, the age of majority - 18 - has been deemed to be an age that's appropriate to be considered an adult," Fletcher said. "At 18, you've graduated high school, you've had life experience. There are expectations for people to start contributing to society more than when they were younger. Part of that is engagement in the democratic process."
The voting age limit is frustrating for teens like Jeremiah Kopp who have spent the last three years volunteering on political campaigns at the municipal, provincial and federal level. Kopp, a young Liberal, said he is just as informed as the adults he volunteers with but can't ultimately influence the outcome by casting a vote.
"It's very frustrating," said the 17-year-old Winnipegger. "These are the people who are the leaders of tomorrow. Why not start now?"
A 1970 amendment to the Elections Act lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. Before that, you have to go all the way back to 1918 when women were enfranchised, to find a similarly large expansion of the Canadian electorate.
Despite the passionate debates and Facebook groups devoted to enfranchising teens, there doesn't appear to be much public appetite for change.
An Angus-Reid poll taken this summer suggested only one-quarter of those surveyed felt 16-year-olds should be able to vote federally. Only a handful more - 32 per cent - felt teens could handle voting in municipal elections.
Larry LeDuc, political science professor at the University of Toronto, put the odds of changing the law at "pretty close to zero." While Australia is currently mulling over lowering its voting age, LeDuc said 18 is almost universally accepted as the benchmark around the world.
Although proponents argue lowering the voting age would help get people "into the habit" of casting a ballot while in high school, LeDuc said there is little evidence that enfranchising 16-year-olds would boost voter participation rates.
"We know that young people vote at lower rates than older people," LeDuc said. "If you suddenly brought into the electorate a wave of people who were younger than the average, the voting rate would go down. They would all go on the rolls but the percentage of them who actually voted would be lower."

Organizations: Conservatives, University of Toronto

Geographic location: WINNIPEG, Alberta, Australia

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