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Decisions about Selective Service to make before your 26th birthday

The Selective Service System (SSS) will not allow anyone to register for the draft if they are 26 or older. This means that you must make your final decision whether or not to register with the SSS before your 26th birthday.

There are never to register with the SSS. There are also reasons for some people to register just before their 26th birthday. If you haven;t yet registered, and are approaching your 26th birthday, the choice of whether or not to register just before your 26th birthday may be as difficult as the choice you made about whether or not to register when you turned 18 or when you considered registering in order to be eligible for some other government program or in response to threatening-seeming letters from the SSS.

If you are unsure what to do, see a draft counselor or contact us or other anti-draft organizations. The requirement to make your final decision whether or not to register with the SSS before your 26th birthday is no reason to panic or rush to register. But you do need to think carefully about it before you turn 26.

If you are already 26 or older

If you didn’t register, and you are already 26, you are now too old to register. You are probably also too old to be drafted. Congratulations! However, while the government probably won’t try to draft you and probably can’t prosecute you nonregistration if you’re over 26, the government can still subject you to lifetime Federal and state administrative penalties for nonregistration.

The regular draft would probably affect only men aged 18 through 25. Older people would only be drafted in an exceptionally large or if they worked in certain specialized fields. In the past, there is been a special draft of older doctors, and the SSS has contingency plans for such a special-skills draft of health care workers up through age 44.

No one 26 or older has been prosecuted for nonregistration, or required to register, since 1980. The government claims that non-registrants can be prosecuted until they reach age 31, when the “statute of limitations” expires five years after the the last date when they were required to register.

(Once you reach your 31st birthday, the “statute of limitations” for nonregistration has expired, and you can speak as freely and publicly as you like about having knowingly and willfully refused to register during your draft-aged years, without risk of prosecution. If you kept quiet about your resistance while you were of draft age and at risk of prosecution, we encourage you to speak out once you turn 31.)

The government must prove that a nonregistrant “knowingly and willfully” refused to register. To prove this they need to prove that you knew about registration during the time you were supposed to register (i.e. ages 18-25). If they don’t have evidence of that by the time you turn 26, and you don;t make public statements or put anything in writing or online about your refusal to register until you turn 31, it will be almost impossible for them later to prove what you did or didn’t know about registration during the time when you are required to register.

It’s not good enough for a Federal prosecutor to tell a jury, “We ran some ads on Facebook, and maybe he saw them,” or, “We sent him a letter and maybe he got it.” It doesn’t matter what they tell you after you’re too old to register. They need proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” of what you knew during the time when you were supposed to register. The government dropped the last two most recent indictments of nonregistrants — before abandoning prosecutions of nonregistrants entirely in 1988 — because they weren’t sure they could prove knowledge and willfulness.

You are still at risk of prosecution (until your 31st birthday) only if you did one of the following things before your 26th birthday:

  • Told the government you didn’t register (e.g. wrote a letter to the SSS or the President).
  • Signed for a registered or certified letter from the SSS, Department of Justice, U.S. attorney, or FBI notifying you that you were required to register. (You are not required to sign for a certified letter or to say anything about why you decline to do so.)
  • Opened an e-mail message from the government notifying you that you are required to register. (E-mail messages can, and often do, contain tracking codes that enable the sender to know whether they have been opened. Don’t open any e-mail messages form the SSS.)
  • Talked to an FBI agent. (Even if you don’t say anything to the FBI, an FBI agent may be able to testify that they notified you that you were supposed to register. Tell them to leave and close the door on them immediately, before they can say anything.)
  • Made a statement that can be proven in court that you didn’t register or knew you were supposed to register (e.g. in a letter to the editor, an interview with a reporter, or on social media or anywhere on the Internet).
  • Told someone who would be willing to testify against you you didn’t register or knew you were supposed to register. (Your spouse can’t usually be force to testify against you, but your parents always can. The SSS has run ads encouraging parents to inform on and coerce their children.)

Most nonregistrants haven’t done any of these things. Those who have done them generally took the risk of “coming out” as nonregistrants in order to express their opposition to the draft and to help prevent the draft and war.

If you want to minimize your personal risk, ignore the SSS. Don’t write letters to the SSS or the government about whether you have registered for the draft or whether you know or think you are supposed to register. Don’t answer their letters. Don’t sign for their letters. Don’t open their email messages. Don’t tell your parents any secrets they aren’t willing to go to jail to protect. Above all, don’t tell the FBI, the Department of Justice, or the U.S. Attorney’s office anything in the unlikely event that they contact you. Anything you say will be used against you. Exercise your right to remain silent, and tell everyone you know to do likewise.

Nonregistrants age 26 and older don’t need to worry any more about being drafted, or about going to prison for not having registered. But we could be denied government jobs in government benefits for the rest of our lives.

Applicants for Federal and some state jobs and other benefits must sign statements that they have registered with the SSS, if they were required to have done so.

These statements are required by laws called Solomon Amendments (after the sponsor in Congress of the first of these laws, Rep. Gerald Solomon, who once denounced me as a “yuppie” in a letter responding to one of mine in the New York Times.) Solomon Amendments presently apply to all jobs with the Federal government. Some states have their own Solomon Amendments restricting admission to state colleges and universities, eligibility for in-state tuition, and jobs with state and local government agencies.

If you don’t (or didn’t) register before you turn 26, you may be ineligible for jobs or programs to which Federal or state Solomon Amendments are later applied. It seems unfair: you can’t know when you decide whether or not to register what the penalties will later turn out to be. It is unfair, but so far, the Supreme Court has not been willing to say that it’s unconstitutional.

The government might have legal problems applying the Solomon Amendments to someone who is willing to register but was too old to be allowed to register. A case raising this issue (Elgin v. U.S. Treasury) was heard by the Supreme Court in 2012, but the Supreme Court decided the case without addressing or resolving this issue.

Don’t count on being able to get way lying about whether you have registered. The SSS matches registration lists against lists of applicants for drivers licenses and various other programs that require registration. If you didn’t register with the SSS, and you say you did on your application for a government job, you are likely to be found out eventually (as happened with the plaintiffs in Elgin v. U.S. Treasury) and you will be fired. You could also be prosecuted for perjury. The legal penalties for perjury are as severe as for nonregistration, and judges are likely to sentence liars more harshly than people they see as conscientious objectors. (Of those nonregistrants who were prosecuted and convicted in the 1980s, those whose motives were seen as primarily religious generally received lighter sentences than whose motives were seen as primarily secular, probably because judges perceived religiously-motivated nonregistrants as “conscientious objectors to draft registration” rather than as “political protesters”.)

If you aren’t yet 26 years old

The choice faced by those men who have not yet either registered or reached their 26th birthday 26 was well described in a 1986 editorial in the Roanoke Times and World-News:

The bizarre approach of the Reagan administration toward the draft-registration law has taken yet another turn for the weird.

To young men who will turn 26 in 1986, the Selective Service has issued this reminder: Sign up or else.

Or else what? Well, the unregistered young men might forfeit any chance to work for the Federal government or for law-enforcement agencies…. But there is no penalty for registering late — even if it’s five years late, as is the case with 25-year-olds who haven’t registered…. And the permanent forfeiture of employment and benefit opportunities is not a prospect until an unregistered male reaches 26 — by which age under current plans, he is not subject to the draft anyway!…

The government’s message to the young men of America, then, seems to go something like the following:… Registration… is the price for obtaining certain kinds of employment and certain kinds of Federal benefits. But if such employment or such benefits are not in your immediate plans, your best bet is to wait to register until the day before your 26th birthday. That way, you can reduce your vulnerability to the slightest crack.

Good analysis and good advice, I think.

Draft resistance groups have said: “Once you register, you can’t change your mind and unregister. If you don’t register on time, you can always change your mind and register later.” But this is true only until your 26th birthday. Either you register by then, or you never register.

The SSS continues to encourage late registration until your 26th birthday. In court, they have said that late registrants will not be prosecuted. They would rather you register late, so that they can claim that you have complied with the registration requirement, than that you never register. The day before your 26th birthday is their last chance to get you to register.

The SSS wants you to be afraid of what might happen later if you turn 26 without registering. But they, too, are afraid of what might happen if you turn 26 without registering. They have been telling Congress and the public that almost everyone registers “eventually”. What if we don’t? How will they explain away the numbers of those who never register? How will they deny the existence and extent of the resistance?

By refusing to register, and by refusing to be intimidated, we have held out (and held off the draft) long enough that an entire generation of young men has entirely escaped the draft. They never registered, and they are now too old to be drafted. Those of us who have reached 26 are free of the draft. We have freed ourselves and everyone else from the threat of the draft through our resistance to registration.

By continuing not to register (and by resisting the temptation of last-minute registration as we approach age 26) you can make an important additional and continuing contribution to the freedom of those now of prime draft age, ages 18 through 20, and those younger still. If everyone who was ordered to register in 1980 had done so on time, we might have had a draft by now. If you register just before your 26th birthday, you won’t be drafted, because you will be too old, but your younger brothers and sisters may be.

Every Director of the SSS since 1980 has claimed in Congressional testimony and official reports that each registration is a vote of confidence in the SSS and an indication of registrants’ readiness and willingness to submit to the draft if called upon. Each registration props up the SSS. Each registration in fear encourages the SSS to escalate its threats and scare tactics. Each registration makes the draft easier to sell to Congress and the public. Each registration makes the draft more likely. And each registration makes it easier for the government to claim that the draft is a realistic policy option on which war planning can be based.

What should I do?

I hope you’ll choose never to register. Even as a convicted nonregistrants I could have registered after i got out of prison, before my 26th birthday, and qualified for jobs in other programs covered by Solomon Amendments. Instead, I turned 26 without ever registering. I think it’s worth it, and I’ve never regretted that choice. I hope you too can make a choice you won’t regret. As always it’s your life.

Whatever you decide, may your 26th birthday be a celebration of your freedom from fear of the draft and from fear of prosecution for refusing to register for the draft. May that freedom and empower you to speak out, if you have not done so before, about your resistance. We congratulate you, as we congratulate all those who work against the draft and draft registration. Whatever your choice, we offer you our continued support in the struggle against the system that requires such choices.

[Adapted and updated December 2021 from an article by Edward Hasbrouck originally published as the lead article in Resistance News #21, 8 June 1986.]

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This page most recently modified 4 December 2021. This site is maintained by Edward Hasbrouck. Corrections, contributions (articles, graphics, photos, videos, links, etc.), and feedback are welcomed.