The question of whether women should — like men — be required to register for the military draft was thrust into the national conversation last week by Army and Marine Corps leaders who favor the idea. Now that women are eligible for all combat roles, it is a natural question.
But is the Selective Service system needed at all, for men or women? Wouldn’t it make more sense, as presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton suggested Wednesday, to put the effort instead into registering all Americans to vote when they turn 18?
Gen. Mark Milley, Army chief of staff, and Gen. Robert Neller, commandant of the Marine Corps, last week told the Senate Armed Services Committee that they favor having all Americans who are physically qualified register for the draft, which applies to ages 18 through 25. The comments favoring the inclusion of women in this registration constitute a first in the Defense Department. Other military leaders did not endorse the idea, pushing instead for a national debate on the issue.
Congress should take up the suggestion and start with a clear-eyed assessment of what purpose is served by the Selective Service system and the millions of dollars devoted to it.
The draft hasn’t been used since 1973. The all-volunteer military has proved successful and is favored by military leaders over forcing people into service for relatively short terms. Given the 402-to-2 vote in the House against a draft in 2004, it’s clear there is no political support for its comeback. The strongest argument for maintaining the registration system is in the remote possibility of a major calamity confronting the country. But other government databases, nonexistent when the Selective Service Act was enacted in 1917, are available to assist in a mobilization.
A far more urgent need for the country is getting people registered to vote. It is estimated that 24 percent of eligible Americans, or 51 million people, are not registered to vote, and studies show the percentage is even higher for those between the ages of 18 and 24.
One big reason is an outmoded and mistake-prone system of registration that needlessly frustrates access to the ballot. When U.S. citizens reach the age of 18, they should automatically be registered. Once they are signed up to vote, they should stay registered. That’s what Clinton talked about last week in New Hampshire, and a similar plan has been backed by Bernie Sanders.
States have the means to do this, as Oregon is showing with a system in which anyone who has or obtains a driver’s license is automatically registered to vote unless they opt out. California plans to follow suit.
Voting is a civic duty. Government should make it easier, not harder, to do.