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Liberal government breaks international ground with registry of prospective voters as young as 14

By Tim Naumetz      

Bill C-33 proposes that Elections Canada collect data on youth as young as 14 who pre-register to vote. Other countries such as the U.S., France, and New Zealand allow for similar pre-registering, but at a minimum age of 16.

'Over and over, we heard from Canadians that we need to do more to include young people in our democracy,' Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef told reporters after she tabled the Election Act amendments in the House of Commons. 'Yes, Canadian youth voted in large numbers in 2015 than compared to 2011, but we can’t take that for granted,' she added. The Hill Times photograph by Jean-Marc Carisse

The Conservative party is questioning the Liberal’s proposal to establish a new “register of future electors” at Elections Canada that would include vital statistics on prospective voters as young as 14 years old—two years younger than similar youth registration in the U.S. and Europe. while one Conservative MP who sits on the House Special Committee on Electoral Reform said his party is open to discussions around attracting more young people to the political debate, he said he is “not convinced at all” that this is the best way to do so.

The youth registry is among a handful of Elections Act amendments Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef is proposing to adopt from a 99-page compendium of recommendations Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand submitted to the House of Commons in September. But, imitating youth qualification for voter pre-registration in other countries, Mr. Mayrand recommended a registry of youth under the voting age of 18 to include future prospective voters aged 16 and 17.

Under legislation Ms. Monsef tabled in the House on Nov. 24, Bill C-33, Elections Canada would have the authority to gather the information—if the youth over the age of 14 actively chooses to provide it—and hold the data until the individual turns 18, at which time the information would be automatically included in a national registry of electors maintained by Elections Canada.

In an email response to The Hill Times, Ms. Monsef’s director of communications, John O’Leary wrote, “we believe our plan helps us not just catch up with other countries like the U.K. and France that already have youth voting pre-registration, but it makes Canada a world leader.”

He added that the information will remain out of the reach of political parties until teenagers on the youth registry turn 18 and are moved to the National Register of Electors.

But Conservative MP Gérard Deltell, one of three Conservative MPs on a House Special Committee on Electoral Reform which is set to table a report after nearly five months of witness hearings and public consultations, says the role for engaging prospective voters at such a young age should be left to political parties.

“We must be very cautious with younger people, all political parties want to attract younger people, which is quite normal, as we attract everybody,” said Mr. Deltell (Louis-Saint-Laurent, Que.). “As far as we are concerned, this belongs to the political parties, to have policies that will attract people.”

Mr. Deltell added that the Conservatives want further explanation from Ms. Monsef (Peterborough-Kawartha, Ont.).

“We’re open to discussion,” he said, adding that he would like Ms. Monsef to elaborate on the government’s reasoning. “We are very concerned, and we will take it very seriously, but with a lot of respect. The target of that is to attract young people to the political debate, which is not bad. Is it the best way? We are not convinced at all.”

The Liberal party’s election platform did not specify Liberal plans to establish a voter registry for prospective voters as young as 14, but its platform for young Canadians promised that a Liberal government would work with Elections Canada to register young voters as a part of their high school curriculum or, in Quebec, the CEGEP curriculum.

Ms. Monsef, like Mr. Mayrand, said the youth registry would contribute to higher rates of electoral participation once voting age is reached, following several federal elections over the past decade that recorded the lowest voter participation rates among voters aged 18 into their late twenties—a trend that reversed in the 2015 election, as young voters turned up to vote in unprecedented numbers, significantly contributing to the election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“Over and over, we heard from Canadians that we need to do more to include young people in our democracy,” Ms. Monsef told reporters after she tabled the Election Act amendments in the House of Commons. “Yes, Canadian youth voted in large numbers in 2015 than compared to 2011, but we can’t take that for granted,” she added.

Ms. Monsef cited France, the U.S., and New Zealand as examples where young citizens are legally allowed to register with either state or national agencies before reaching the voting age of 18.

The legislation would see teens who have pre-registered receive educational resources and helpful information about Canadian democracy and voting, and upon turning 18, would be automatically added to the National Register of Electors.

Under Bill C-33, inclusion in the Registry of Future Voters would be optional and would not require permission of the young person’s “parents or guardian or tutor.”

The Elections Act requires Elections Canada to share the Register of Electors with political parties and election candidates.

Conservative MP Blake Richards (Banff-Airdrie, Alta.), who also sits on the House Electoral Reform Committee, met with reporters to discuss aspects of Ms. Monsef’s news briefing, but said he had not yet read the bill closely enough to respond to questions about its details.

U.S. presidential and congressional elections are administered by state electoral agencies. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are 11 states including California, Colorado, and Florida, which allow citizens as young as 16 to pre-register to vote. There are five states, including Maine, Oregon, and New Jersey, which allow pre-registering for those over the age of 17. Other states have a range of rules around age for pre-registering, like Georgia which requires the individual to be 17.5 years of age, and a number of states that require that the youth be 18 before the next general election.

In the United Kingdom, future electors can pre-register once they reach age 16.

Other major changes Ms. Monsef unveiled would reverse several changes the previous Conservative government made to the Canada Elections Act, which critics said at the time would depress voter turnout.

The Liberal bill would repeal Conservative government limits on voting by Canadian citizens residing outside Canada, and instead, allow any Canadian citizen living abroad to vote in Canadian federal elections, regardless of how long they have resided outside the country— a move that Ms. Monsef said would add more than a million names to the federal voting lists.

Other major reversals from Conservative changes included restoring the investigative arm—the federal election commissioner— back to the independent office of Elections Canada, with appointment by the chief electoral officer. The Conservative government transferred responsibility for the federal election commissioner to the Director of Public Prosecutions after several years of litigation and conflict between the Conservative party and Elections Canada.

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