The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

America may never have a draft again. But we’re still punishing low-income men for not registering

More than 40 years since America's last draft, failing to register for selective service can mean missing out on crucial benefits.

Draft Director Curtis W. Tarr spins one of the two Plexiglas drums in Washington on Feb. 2, 1972, as the fourth annual Selective Service lottery begins. Inside are capsules containing birth dates and orders of assignment for men born in 1953. (Charles W. Harrity/AP)
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The last time Danieldevel Davis got out of prison it was 2012 and he was 38.

“I ain’t going back into no man’s prison again,” he vowed.

He’d been locked up for six years, which was the longest he’d ever lived in one place. Davis grew up in foster homes, dropped out of school in the 11th grade and then hit the revolving door: streets, juvenile detention, streets, prison. He’s never possessed a driver’s license. He’s never had a bill in his name.

“I’ve never had anything in my name,” he says.

So, this is what happened when Davis went to fill out his financial aid paperwork at a Virginia Beach technical college.

“Have you registered for the Selective Service?” the financial aid officer asked.

“What do you mean?” Davis said.

“Did you register to be drafted?”


This may be a nation with an all-volunteer military, one that ended conscription more than 40 years ago, but federal law still requires men ages 18 to 25 to register for a draft that does not exist. There are few exemptions and no second chances.

Davis never registered with the Selective Service System and so learned that he was looking at potentially lifelong consequences. No access to federal student loans or grants. No federal job training money or certain government jobs. And, in Virginia, no driver’s license.

“I didn’t know I had to register and now I can’t get anything,” Davis says. “I can’t do nothing.”

The odds of this country returning to a draft are almost zero, but the price for failure to register is high and is largely born by the men who can ill afford to pay it: high school dropouts, disconnected inner city residents, ex-offenders and immigrants — legal and unauthorized — who do not know that failure to register can jeopardize citizenship. In other words, those precisely in need of the type of job training, education and citizenship opportunities that could help move them from the margins to the mainstream.

In California, the Selective Service System estimates, men who failed to register were denied access to more than $99 million in federal and state financial aid and job training benefits between 2007 and April of this year. Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Massachusetts saw $35 million in combined lost benefits between 2011 and spring 2014.

“Why are we setting up these barriers?” says Regina Tyler, director of Virginia State University’s Upward Bound program and the Education Opportunity Center, which helps adults return to school. “Why are we attaching them to financial aid? We don’t have a draft, so what is the point?”

The point, supporters of registration long have argued, is that almost-zero odds of conscription are not zero odds.

“You can never say never,” says Lawrence G. Romo,  director of the Selective Service System. “We are a deterrent. We want to make sure our adversaries understand that if we had an extreme national emergency, we would have the draft.”

A fair and equitable draft, which would include alternatives to military service, requires 100 percent compliance, he argues. “We need to have some type of penalty in order to help us get that compliance.”

The agency grants few exceptions, but, Romo emphasizes, it is ultimately up to the financial aid officer or the workforce specialist – the agency dispensing the benefit  – to decide whether someone “knowingly and willfully” violated the law and therefore should be denied.

“The door may have closed, but the window may still be pried open,” agency spokesman Matthew Tittmann puts it.

A majority of men do register – 2.5 million in 2013 alone. The agency casts a huge, largely effective dragnet in high schools, motor vehicle departments, post offices and elsewhere. The average compliance rate nationally among 19-year-olds who registered last year was 89 percent.

So, how many run into the sanctions as Davis did? There’s no good way to track, but the Selective Service System estimates it’s in the tens of thousands every year.  Men such as Davis also make up part of a larger group of suspected violators  of the law whose names the agency turns over every year to the Department of Justice, which hasn’t prosecuted anyone for the offense since 1986. The potential for punishment is there, however: A fine of up to $250,000 and/or up to five years in prison.

The federal sanctions are just the half of it. According to the Selective Service System, 32 states now have made registration a prerequisite to a variety of benefits, from state financial aid to state jobs to tuition breaks. Tennessee requires males who failed to register to pay out-of-state tuition to attend the University of Tennessee system – even if they are state residents and citizens. 

Selective Service registration raises two separate but related issues, the larger of which is whether it is necessary in the absence of a declared war or national emergency, and if so, whether it is discriminatory in an age of expanded roles for women in military combat. (Short and hotly-debated answers: Maybe and yes. Neither of which will be decided by the Selective Service agency itself.)

But the concerns of Davis and men like him are more immediate: how to move forward when his education path is blocked. Davis is working part-time as a janitor for $7.50 an hour and cannot pay for school without help.

“The job part I understand because I put myself in this position, that’s the bed I laid in,” he says. “But as far as the Selective Service goes, I don’t feel as though I should be punished. I am someone trying to rehabilitate myself and go to school.”

By far, the agency’s most successful tool to enforce compliance lies in the issuance of state driver’s licenses. Forty states, the District of Columbia and four U.S. territories now tie issuance or renewal of driver’s licenses to Selective Service registration. Most of those have moved to an automatic registration. Other have opt-in or opt-out provisions. Agency spokesman, Mr Tittmann, indicated that Selective Service strongly favors state laws for automatic registration when getting a driver’s license because it helps those most in need of the benefits linked to registration – young men out the mainstream, the disadvantaged, minorities, and immigrants.

“This is absolutely unfair,” Rep. Mike Coffman, a veteran of both Iraq wars, says of the sanctions. Coffman, a Republican from Colorado, is among the most outspoken critics of the system. Earlier this year, he co-sponsored a bipartisan bill that would abolish the $23 million agency, suspending registration – and sanctions — except by executive order in a time of national emergency.

“The Selective Service is a bureaucracy that needs to die because it no longer serves a viable purpose,” he said in an e-mail. “Even during the height of the War in Iraq and Afghanistan the Department of Defense never considered using the draft.”

Says Romo, “You have 435 congressmen and so you have 435 opinions on the Selective Service.”

One of them, he notes, belongs to Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, who earlier this year introduced two bills related to the draft. The first would require women to register with the Selective Service. The second calls for all citizens and residents between 18 and 25 to perform two years of military or community service and would reinstate the draft only when a clear threat to the nation is present and Congress formally has declared war or the president proclaims a national emergency.

Rangel has long argued that the burden of fighting war has fallen unfairly on the shoulders of a few, and that a more-inclusive draft “would compel everyone in the nation to stop and think about who we sent to wars, how we fight – and why we fight them at all.”

But, Rangel says, until the day comes that the United States is engaged in a declared war and the nation’s security is violated — or Congress passes his National Service Act — there is no reason for the Selective Service System. “Having people penalized for not registering is a fraud,” he said.

Rangel emphasized that registration is current law and should be followed, but said he now intends to introduce a  draft-related bill — one abolishing the service.

Romo argues that if the system were abolished, the nation would lose time it could not afford in reactivating it in the event of national emergency. “It would take a minimum of two or three years to get the system going,” he said. It’s about readiness, he says, “and the Selective Service is a very inexpensive insurance policy.”

The agency, he says, is engaged in constant public outreach, particularly to those most in danger of falling through the cracks. That includes education sessions in inner-city neighborhoods, the Bureau of Prisons, halfway houses and groups working with immigrants and minorities. “We are trying to ensure that a man does not ace himself out of potential opportunities down the road because he was ignorant of the fact he had to register,” Romo says.

Until a few days ago, Davis did not realize that in the phrase “knowingly and willfully” lies his hope. He thinks he can prove to a financial aid officer that he did not deliberately evade his duty. He’s calling his former probation officer to get his juvenile and adult criminal records and is trying to figure out how to get his school records. Davis is building his case.