If it hadn't been for the voter registration form attached to the end of the application for a learner's permit to drive, LaWanda Jones probably would not be a registered voter.

"To tell you the truth, I wouldn't have really thought about it," said Jones, 18, a Howard University sophomore who lives in Northwest Washington. "But the application was right there and I said, 'I might as well go ahead now, because I doubt if I'll come back down here just to do that.' "

LaWanda Jones is one of thousands of young people in Washington for whom this year's election presents the first opportunity to exercise the right to vote.

According to figures from the D.C. Board of Elections, nearly 42 percent of the 70,700 eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 24 are registered to vote -- which approaches the 43.8 percent figure for 1988, a presidential election year when the District registered a record number of voters.

Young people register at a rate below that of their elders. Overall, 291,367 District residents are registered, or about 63 percent of the voting age population.

The deadline for registering for the Sept. 11 party primaries is midnight tomorrow.

For many of those who were not registered, tangible, immediate concerns took precedence over the sometimes abstract notion of voting.

"I just haven't gotten around to it," said Roderick Cole, 19.

"It's important, especially since it's time to reelect the mayor. I just have a lot of other things to deal with," said Cole, who lives in Northeast Washington and plans to attend the University of the District of Columbia in the fall.

Cole did not remember learning about voting in school and did not know how to register, but said he thought he would register soon. "I'll ask my grandmother," he said. "She'll probably know. To some extent, I think my vote counts. But there are some things I'm not sure about. I'm still pretty young."

"Young people are simply much slower getting into politics," said Milton Morris, director of research at the Joint Center for Political Studies. ". . . Voting is not a part of the youth culture."

Interviews with young people in the past two weeks found many who have not registered. Many of those who were registered took advantage of outreach programs.

Despite efforts by the Board of Elections, the Rainbow Coalition, the Nation of Islam, the Community for Creative Non-Violence and many other organizations, the response has been modest.

"The only purpose registration serves is to prevent people from voting," said Dee Hunter, D.C. coordinator of the National Rainbow Coalition's D.C. Statehood Campaign and a candidate for a shadow U.S. representative seat. "If you didn't have registration, you'd have a tremendous turnout. We need same day, universal voter registration."

According to Lawrence Greenberg, chief of the Bureau of Motor Vehicle Services, it appears that young people and new residents make up the largest percentage of those who register at his agency. "If you're of age or move into the District of Columbia, what's the first thing you're going to do?" he said. "Get your driver's license."

The program, called Motor Voter, started in May 1989. The voter registration form is attached to the application for a driver's license and other forms.

Kevin Blythers, 19, recently registered at Motor Vehicles. "I look through the paper and read about the candidates for other offices, what they say they're going to do. Since they're making such a big issue out of {D.C. Mayor Marion} Barry, this is the time for them to expose themselves, to say how they could have done it better."