Automatic Registration in the United States: The Selective Service Example

July 15, 2009

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About the Selective Service
Implications for Voter Registration
About the Voting Rights & Election Project
About the Author



For decades, federal law required men to register with the Selective Service when they turn 18 and to keep their registrations current through the age of 25. Enforceable law helped encourage registration; so did the agency's efforts to make registration materials available in post offices, schools, and other public places.  

Recently, however, the Selective Service System has taken a more pro-active role in registration and has deployed a range of technological resources that make registration easier and more efficient. Automatic registration programs and data-sharing arrangements with other government agencies- including state departments of motor vehicles, Education, and the Department of Labor's Job Corps Program- significantly help the Selective Service to register members of the target population and to keep registrations current.  

The Selective Service maintains records for about 16.5 million individuals in its target population--or about 95 percent of the approximately 17 million males between 18 and 25 living in the United States. It also reports that technological resources have significantly reduced the costs involved in building and maintaining registration lists.  

This report explains how technology helps the Selective Service and partner agencies register and maintain current records on the majority of the agency's target population-with little or no effort on the part of registrants themselves. 

We gathered the information in this report primarily from information the Selective Service reported to Congress and from interviews with Selective Service officials. The Brennan Center makes no claims about the quality of the Selective Service's files-there has been no independent audit of the Selective Service since 1982; however, available evidence suggests that the automatic registration methods described in this report enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of Selective Service registration.  

The Selective Service's technologically advanced registration system may provide a useful model for those who would like to modernize our voter registration system. The Selective Service's experience shows that automatic voter registration is feasible. It also shows that the government agencies that could help expand and improve our voter rolls already have the necessary infrastructure, technology, and experience to do so.   

It is not surprising that the Selective Service has deployed technology and other resources to identify and automatically register young men for the draft; the government has an obvious, central interest in its ability to mobilize an expanded military in time of crisis.  The ability to participate in the electoral process is surely just as central to democracy. It is disconcerting that the government has not availed itself of the same technology and commitment to improve our voter registration system.  The government has shown it can effectively and automatically register eligible men for the draft. It should now use the same tools to automatically register eligible citizens to vote.    

Implications for Voter Registration

Building the List

Using data transfer methods similar to those used by the Selective Service, election officials could build a single, comprehensive list of voting-eligible citizens who would have to do nothing more than show up at the polls on Election Day in order to cast a valid ballot. The automatic registration program that the Selective Service undertakes in partnership with state departments of motor vehicles and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) shows particular promise in the context of voter registration. Under the auspices of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA), which provides for simultaneous voter registration when citizens apply for a driver’s license, state departments of motor vehicles already process voter registration applications with the assistance of AAMVA. Not all states fully comply with the NVRA, but the law provides that individuals need only sign an additional field affirming voting eligibility and authorizing their registration in order to vote. AAMVA’s Help America Vote Verification software already allows departments of motor vehicles to share information with the Social Security Administration and with state election officials in order to verify voter identity. Other registration models also show promise. Information on all registration-age men who submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is electronically transferred to the Selective Service registrant file through leased lines, a model that allows both automatic registration (for men who elect to be registered on the application) and data sharing (for men who claim to already be registered). Other agencies, like the Department of Labor, send encrypted, password-protected files containing registrant information to the Selective Service for incorporation into its registrant file. The Selective Service model shows not only that it is possible for one government agency to transfer information to another, but also that states have a variety of methods from which to choose in undertaking this task.

Maintaining the List

Just as the Selective Service must update registrant records in order to ensure its ability to contact registrants in the event of a draft, election officials must keep voter information up to date to ensure that voters are assigned to the proper voting precinct. As the Selective Service model demonstrates, departments of motor vehicles can communicate address updates to election officials — as they are required to do by the NVRA — through an automated system that is integrated with the registration model and that requires no extra effort on the part of citizens or administrators. Suppression files like those used in the military’s JAMRS database may also prove useful in maintaining voter registration lists. Some citizens may wish to “opt out” of the voter registration system, and so-called suppression files are the best way to ensure that elections officials do not inadvertently add those individuals back onto the list when they collect new information. States may also choose to add individuals who are temporarily ineligible to vote to a special file of individuals who should not be included in the registrant list to avoid inadvertent registration. Elections officials could simply remove these individuals from the special file when they become eligible.

Privacy, Security, and Cost

Voter registration systems face many of the same privacy and security concerns as the Selective Service. Like the Selective Service, election officials must maintain data systems that protect voter privacy and withstand unauthorized access or other attacks, and like all government agencies, elections authorities must fulfill their mission in a cost-effective manner. The Selective Service model shows that increased investments in registration technology can help to achieve all of these goals. 

About the Selective Service

The Selective Service System (the ‘Selective Service') is an independent federal agency with its own leadership and budget, separate from the Department of Defense and its subsidiary branches of the military. The agency's mission is to oversee the execution of the Military Selective Service Act, a law that requires virtually all citizen and noncitizen males in the United States to register with the Selective Service when they turn 18 and to keep their information current with the agency until they turn 26 so that the Selective Service can effectively administer conscription in the event of a military draft. Historically, young men have fulfilled this obligation by filling out registration forms at post offices, schools, and more recently, on the Internet.   

Law requires all men between the ages of 18 and 25 to register for the Selective Service, except for current patients of hospitals or mental institutions, the imprisoned, disabled men who cannot reasonably leave their homes or move about independently, students at military academies, holders of non-immigrant United States visas, and men who were born as biological females. Men who are not required to register due to a temporary condition must register immediately if a change in circumstances causing them to become eligible for registration, such as release from prison, occurs when they are between the ages of 18 and 25. Though they would be exempt from conscription in the event of a draft, conscientious objectors, members of the clergy, and men with disabilities that would make them ineligible for military service must register.  

The Selective Service facilitates registration through public outreach, a volunteer registrar program with representatives in most high schools, and partnerships with government agencies. The aim of these efforts is twofold: both to receive information on registration-age males for the purposes of automatic registration, and to coordinate outreach to remind non-registrants of their responsibility under the law.  

With the advent of recent data sharing technology, the Selective Service no longer relies solely on individuals to accomplish its mission of building a list of all registration-eligible men. For more than a decade, the Selective Service has assumed the responsibility of actively registering men between the ages of 18 and 25, using a combination of automatic registration and data collection techniques. The Selective Service partners with other government agencies such as state departments of motor vehicles and the Department of Education to automatically register the majority of its constituents and to collect data on others so that it can reach out to them and remind them of their responsibility under the law.  

In fiscal year 2008, less than 30 percent of Selective Service registrations were applicant- initiated, and the vast majority of those who registered did so online through the Selective Service website. The Selective Service and its government partner agencies initiated 72 percent of registrations, automatically registering 62 percent of registrants during transactions with other government agencies and sending reminder or compliance mailings to the remaining 10 percent, whose information the Selective Service gathered through data sharing with many of the same agencies that participate in automatic registration. 


The notion that a government agency with an interest in building a comprehensive list of a target population might rely on other government agencies and modern data sharing technology to build this list is far from revolutionary. If it is worth enacting such a system to ensure the robustness of our nation's defense, surely it is worth doing so to nurture the democratic process at the heart of our nation's character. 

About the Voting Rights & Elections Project

The Voting Rights and Elections Project works to expand the franchise, to ensure that every eligible American can vote, and that every vote cast is accurately recorded and counted. The Center's staff provides top-flight legal and policy assistance on a broad range of election administration issues including voter registration systems, voting technology, voter identification, statewide voter registration list maintenance, and provisional ballots.

This is one in a series of white papers on Voter Registration Modernization. The first, Voter Registration Modernization, sets forth more detailed policy arguments in favor of modernizing America's voter registration system. Others include Expanding Democracy: Voter Registration Around the World, which examines international methods of voter registration; Permanent Voter Registration, which analyzes systems of statewide permanent registration; and When Voters Move, which examines how states handle voters who move. 

About the Author

Laura Seago joined the Brennan Center in July 2008. As a Research Associate in the Democracy Program, she focuses on government accountability and voting rights and elections. Ms. Seago graduated from the University of Chicago with honors in 2007, and spent two years as the Development Director of an immigrant rights agency in Chicago. While conducting research on the governance of international trade, Ms. Seago also worked for the Federación de Cooperativas Agrícolas de Productores de Café de Guatemala (FEDECOCAGUA) through the University of Chicago's Human Rights Internship Program.