What to Know About Selective Service and the Draft Today

The United States has had combat troops in Afghanistan since 2001, meaning that, next year, the high school graduating class will have never lived in a peacetime America.

Those graduates will have a lot of big decisions to make, but one of them won’t be whether or not to register with the Selective Service System, which keeps track of the adult men in the U.S. in the event we ever need conscription—“the draft”—again. There are very clear laws about who has to register for the draft and who doesn’t. And the history behind it is interesting.

Why do we have a draft today?

Although the United States has fought a lot of wars, it has only actually used the draft—mandatory military service for adult men who are able—in a few of them. President Abraham Lincoln instituted the first national draft during the American Civil War. It was clunky, inefficient, and it favored the wealthy. Drafted northerners could hire a substitute, and early in the draft, they could pay a hefty fee to avoid reporting. Opposition to the draft eventually boiled over in New York, where an anti-draft riot turned into a race riot, leaving hundreds dead.

Soldier and civilian shaking hands on blurred background. Rewire PBS Our Future Draft
Registering for selective service and celebrating your 18th birthday go hand in hand.

Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt maintained massive propaganda campaigns to encourage both enlistment and draft registration. Still, more than 330,000 men were officially classified as “draft evaders” during World War I. Few were caught, but those who were prosecuted faced severe penalties. The World War II draft brought more than 10 million men into the U.S. military, but still faced scattered opposition.

The draft continued for the Korean War, and once again hit high gear for the conflict in Vietnam. Opposition to the war in Vietnam was famously intense, and the Vietnam draft also favored the wealthy. As I wrote in a previous article, whether it was political connections, college deferments, or a letter from a family doctor, those with money had more ways to evade the Vietnam draft than those without.

National law made no concession for conscientious objectors until World War I, and even then only members of traditional “peace churches” were eligible. Today, religion doesn’t need to factor into your opposition to war, but it must go deeper than “politics, expediency, or self-interest.”

Do I have to register?

So, if you’re reading this, what do you or other people you know need to do when that 18th birthday rolls around? That depends.

If you’re a male citizen or non-citizen (with a few exceptions), you have 30 days before your 18th birthday and 30 days after to register with the Selective Service. It’s incredibly easy. You can register here on the Selective Service’s website. You can find paper registration forms at any U.S. Post Office. It’s also part of filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. If you forget, you can continue to register up to your 26th birthday.

If you’re female, however, you are not required to register with the Selective Service due to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1981 decision in Rostker v. Goldberg. Rostker reasoned that the purpose of the draft isn’t just to get more soldiers, it’s to get frontline combat troops.

Male and female soldiers in uniforms standing in formation during military ceremony. Rewire PBS Our Future Draft
Will Congress one day amend the draft law and require women to register as well?

Because women weren’t allowed to serve in frontline combat duty in 1981, the Court saw no problem with limiting the draft to men. Those exclusionary policies have since been reversed, but Congress has not (yet) amended its draft law and the Supreme Court has not (yet) revisited Rostker.

There are also draft rules for transgender Americans. According to the Selective Service, “individuals who are born female and changed their gender to male are not required to register. U.S. citizens or immigrants who are born male and changed their gender to female are still required to register.”

But what about conscientious objectors? If you are a conscientious objector, the law still requires you to register. If a draft actually occurs, you’ll be able to file for an exemption.

What happens if I don’t?

Registering with the Selective Service is the law, although it’s not enforced like most other laws. You won’t need to make a dramatic leap from a dam to elude some “Selective Service Police.” Failure to register is a felony punishable by up to a $250,000 fine or up to five years in prison, but the consequences tend to be a little more enmeshed in everyday life.

If you don’t register, you won’t be eligible for federal grants or loans for college. You won’t be able to receive federal job training. In fact, you won’t be hired for any federal job. Thirty-one states have similar policies in place for state jobs or assistance, and 40 states tie registration into driver’s licenses (check here and here for your state).

Registering with the Selective Service is also part of the naturalization process, meaning registration is a prerequisite for becoming an American citizen.

The consequences for not registering are steep. But most importantly, registering will help ensure that the next draft is more equitable than previous ones.

Jacob Hillesheim

Jacob Hillesheim is a Minnesota educator who has taught courses in American History, World History, Military History, Government, and Criminal Justice & Law. He holds Master’s degrees in Teaching and Learning and in History. He has never – never – said “no” to ice cream.