Selective service provides a model for improved voter registration

There’s a good reason why people are familiar with the Selective Service: When men living in the United States turn eighteen, they’re not simply granted the privileges of being of age; they also become obligated to register for the draft.  And, as any of-age American male can attest, the Selective Service — the agency charged with registration – does its job well.  The Service keeps records on approximately 17 million men between the ages of 18-25 (95% of the target population), and it regularly updates its registrant list to ensure that it has up-to-date information. But the agency is less remarkable for what it does than how it does it. As a new Brennan Center report suggests, the Service provides a model for modernizing another system that impacts newly-minted eighteen year olds -– voter registration.

The report’s author, Laura Seago, notes that nearly three-quarters of Selective Service registration data is collected through file-sharing with other federal agencies, notably the Department of Labor, US Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the DMV, which accounts for two-thirds of automatic registration. Additionally, anybody who submits a FAFSA  (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is automatically entered into the database, which substantially increases the likelihood that men will register, knowingly or not. Strikingly, few people actually initiate the registration process themselves; less than a third of the applicants did so in 2008.   As Seago notes, “more than 60 percent of Selective Service-eligible men were automatically registered when they interacted with other government agencies.” In other words, if you’re in the right demographic, the Selective Service might not be on your radar, but you’re most likely on theirs.

Privacy issues arise. The Selective Service is subject to a number of laws that restrict the use and transmission of personal information. (The 2002 Federal Information Security Management Act, which oversees government databases, and the 1974 Privacy Act, which determines what information an agency can request, both govern the Selective Service.) And the government agencies that share data with the Selective Service have their own guidelines for maintaining the security of their databases. For example, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services sends data on eligible men to the Selective Service on a CD-ROM in order to avoid any risks of electronic file transfer. These laws don’t completely resolve all privacy concerns. But, they establish legal boundaries for federal data sharing, and could set the parameters for an automatic voter registration system as well.

The Selective Service’s registration model shows that the institutional knowledge, data sharing technology, and privacy protections are all in place to proactively register Americans to vote. And if the government automatically collects this information for the purpose of draft registration, the least it could do is to apply these same techniques to enhance political participation.

Computer glitches, administrative errors and draconian restrictions disenfranchise millions of voters, and a sizable portion of the population doesn’t bother to register at all. Automatic voter registration would relieve these problems, and in Seago’s words, “nurture the democratic process at the heart of our nation’s character.” Selective Service-style data sharing would enable this to happen with minimal cost and complications.

The infrastructure already exists. Under the 2002 Help America Vote Act, states maintain voter registration databases that share information with the DMV and Social Security Administration.  Existing technology makes it possible to register voters automatically and with relative ease; the necessary information is already in other government databases.

The Selective Service nicely demonstrates how efficient government data sharing can be. It might also incite reflection on the relationship between this country’s values and its actions. Let’s use the up-to-date technology is available to register eligible men to fight our wars to bolster the electoral process:  the machinery is already in place for an updated, automatic voter registration system that could make ours a stronger, more inclusive democracy.

By Jessica Loudis


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