Uncle Sam has always pointed his finger at men when the U.S. Army goes looking for soldiers. Today, those men are required to register for the draft when they turn 18 — and Congress is considering whether women should have to sign up, too. A Senate bill requiring as much might be a common-sense step toward gender equality. But it would be far more useful to treat this as an opportunity to rethink an obsolete system and register Americans to vote, not just to fight.
There is little logical basis for excluding women from the duty to register for the Selective Service now that they may fight on the front lines alongside men. Most senators — including Republicans such as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Kentucky) — agree: The Senate passed a defense bill last week that would require women turning 18 on or after Jan. 1, 2018, to register for the draft. The House version of the legislation does not include the measure, a difference that will have to be reconciled in conference.
An apt question as legislators debate is whether the Selective Service system makes sense at all in the modern age. An all-volunteer force has worked well in the United States since 1973. It's not clear that mass conscription would make sense for today's high-tech military even if the nation faced a large-scale threat. Barring a move toward universal service beyond the armed forces, the Selective Service system may be outdated, especially when other databases could help the government conduct a draft should the need arise.
The millions of dollars put into maintaining the system each year might be better spent on a more pressing problem: low levels of voter registration. Almost a quarter of the population is not registered. Because studies show that voting is habit-forming, it is particularly important to bring young people to the polls — but they register at even lower rates. Poor registration systems may deter potential voters, and they cause other problems, too: Estimates say about 24 million voter registrations are invalid or inaccurate. In the District of Columbia's Democratic primary June 14, a registration glitch erased some voters' party affiliation and prevented them from casting ballots.
A well-coordinated national system that automatically registered U.S. citizens at age 18 could brighten this picture. Five states employ some method of automatic registration through their departments of motor vehicles, and a bill introduced by Rep. David Cicilline, D-Rhode Island, would make the practice mandatory. Researchers have identified the Selective Service's automatic draft registration model as one states could use to increase voter registration numbers. Why not shift resources to the voter registration cause, or — if sign-up strictures must stay — tie the two together? The United States should want citizens not just in the armed forces but in the voting booth as well.