Detroit — Only about 54 percent of the voters voted four years ago, and, of all the groups that abstained, the largest was the class of 18-20. Maybe their interest will be jogged in 1980 by the registration requirement that Congress just passed and the President just signed. Will the youths register, for a possible later military draft, and how will the situation be viewed by their parents?
First registrations begin next week, July 21, and will continue through the week of July 28. There is controversy over it here at the Republican convention but less, perhaps, than you would think. The registration involves four million young men. The penalty for not registering is up to a $10,000 fine or 5 years in prison. Some civic groups disapprove of the whole procedure. There are apt to be protests and agitation. Will there be counteraction against the protestors? Most of the attention at the start of this GOP convention over the platform was on the issue of equal rights for women, and whether Republicans should continue to endorse a constitutional amendment to support them. But registration is a more immediate and practical problem for a specific group of voters. Registration is not, of course, an immediate military call-up, a draft; it is merely for a preliminary procedure to speed up a draft if a crisis arises. Ironically enough, amidst all convention dispute over equal rights for women the new registration requirement applies only to men.
America amended the Constitution in July, 1971, to give the vote to citizens of "18 years of age or older." That added huge new phalanx of potential voters to the electoral process. Of this groups in 1976 only about 38 percent of the females votes by one estimate and even less of the males, about 36 percent. It was a close election in 1976 between Carter and Ford and technically the non-voters might have decided it, but their interest was languid and most stayed home. It will be interesting to see if more vote under the shadow of registration.
President Carter originally opposed registration but he supported it in his State of the Union message in January. He wanted to send a signal to Russia of American determination. Gov. Reagan wants to show determination, too, and promises to take a tougher attitude toward Moscow than the Democrats, but he opposed registration when it was in congress. Senator Kennedy and Rep. Anderson opposed it, too. It passed the House, 234 to 168. For Europeans it is hard to understand that America does not have compulsory military service; among NATO countries only the US and Canada, Britain, and tiny Luxembourg, do not have it; all the rest have conscription. Russia and all the communist-bloc countries require at least two years of active duty and, in addition, Russians must serve in reserve units until 50.
America has had one discomfort after another. Cheap oil gave out. Recession followed inflation. Detroit's auto companies staggered under foreign imports. Productivity dropped. America's influence abroad declined. As a kind of symbol of difficult times the young men must now go to the post office and give their names, social security numbers, and ages. They will not get any reminder from the government to appear, but in a month or two after they do they will get a card acknowledging that they are listed -- listed in some impersonal tabulating monster that can produce their names at will.
There is a great deal of hoopla in these gigantic convention spectacles, with noise and bands and parades. But I think they are losing their importance. Governor Reagan was picked, of course, long before delegates arrived. The platform debate over a constitutional Equal Rights amendment -- important though it was to many -- seemed less relevant immediately than the registration of four million young men.
Nobody knows if registration will become a burning issue. There will be no immediate penalties after next Monday if youths forget or fail to appear at America's 34,000 post offices. The affair may get into politics; most disputes in a presidential election do. One effect it could have: sending more 18-20 -year-olds to the polls next November. They will be reminded of their immediate personal stake in the affairs of government.