WASHINGTON — An army of new voters received a startling call to serve recently, when one of the largest nonpartisan groups trying to increase voting by young people sent fake draft cards to nearly 640,000 e-mail addresses.
"You've been drafted" was the subject line of the message sent by Rock the Vote. The message contained an image of a draft card addressed to the recipient and warned, "real cards may be in the mail soon if the situation doesn't improve."
President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry both have rejected suggestions that they would move to reinstitute the draft, positions they reiterated in their debate Friday night in St. Louis.
But by raising the threat of the draft, Rock the Vote has staked its claim as the edgiest of the multimillion-dollar campaigns trying to push young people to the polls. The effort has also caught the attention of Republicans, who said the group misled voters and crossed into partisan politics.
"It has the face of a nonpartisan group, yet it's promoting the agenda of the liberal left," said Alison Aikele, spokeswoman for the College Republican National Committee. Aikele said has she received complaints from local chapters about draft rumors on campus.
Rock the Vote political director Hans Riemer said the group was trying to inform its members about the limits of U.S. military forces, not persuade them to vote for a particular candidate.
"It would be crazy if young people went to the polls and didn't factor this into their votes, however they come down on it. It's very real," said Riemer. "We're one major military conflict away from the draft. I don't see why candidates get to talk about war all day long and we can't talk about a draft."
Despite the stated opposition by Bush and Kerry to reinstating the draft, a recent survey found that only a quarter of young people knew this, compared with 42% of older people.
About half of 18- to 29-year-olds believe that Bush wants to reinstate the draft, according the poll conducted by the Annenberg National Election Survey this month.
Last week, House Republicans sought to dispel suggestions that the war in Iraq could lead to a new draft by hastily bringing the idea to a vote and defeating it in a 402-2 vote.
But that move is unlikely to end the talk on college campuses.
"If there is a draft, I would still be eligible," said University of Michigan student Paul Indyck, explaining why he was leaning toward Kerry.