Here's how a modern military draft would work

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Series: The Modern Military Draft

The last American was drafted in 1973, but the country maintains an elaborate infrastructure to re-activate the draft if it's ever needed. However, a lot has changed since the Vietnam War era. As part of the American Homefront project, KPCC reports on the evolving military draft.

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The military draft, dormant since the early 1970s, is back on lawmakers minds. More women taking combat roles in the services has prompted questions over whether they should also be required to register. But that's not the only way the draft has and could evolve. 

First off, the obvious. The last American was drafted in 1973. President Jimmy Carter brought it out of deep freeze in 1981, after the U.S.S.R. invaded Afghanistan, once again requiring "male persons" to register on their eighteenth birthday. But it would basically take a Martian invasion, as Julie Lynn, California Director of the Selective Service joked to KPCC, to actually reinstate the draft.

Nevertheless, the Selective Service continues to be funded at about $23 million a year, and there are about 100 people in the U.S. who's job it is to be at the ready just in case.

Many work at Selective Service headquarters at Arlington, Virginia, which is also home to "The Machine."

Photo: Jagmeet Mac

On a recent Wednesday, Vince McClure, a program analyst at the Selective Service, wheeled it out so our photographer could take a look. The machine is actually two, clear, fish-tank-like hexagons manufactured by Garron, the same company that makes the devices used by a lot of state lottos.

Every month, McClure or one of his colleagues rolls out the machine, boots it up, and makes sure it’d be ready to jump into action, should duty call.

The first machine has white ping pong balls — the “precedence number,” McClure explains. “With numbers from one to 366. And the other has blue balls in it, with the dates of January 1 to December 31.”

Those are the birthdays.

In each machine, the racks drop balls into the tank and they mix, until one rolls into the tube. Each birthday gets paired with a precedence number.

If this were a real draft, the Selective Service would come for 20-year-olds first. So if you’re 20 years old, and your birthday pops up at the same time as precedence number one, that means you.

Next up would be: 21, 22, 23, 24-year-olds.

Then, the 18 and 19-year-olds.

And finally the draft would apply to 25 and 26-year-olds.

If someone is enrolled in an undergraduate degree program at the time they're drafted, the student would be allowed to finish their current semester -- then, they'd have to leave school for induction into the armed forces. But if the student is in their senior year of undergraduate studies at the time they're drafted, they'd be allowed to finish and graduate no matter which semester they're in.

The "student deferments" of the Vietnam era simply do not exist anymore. But local draft boards --there are more than 2,100 of them in 50 states and six territories — would hear requests for exemptions.

Unlike 'draft boards' of old, the local boards' job is not to decide who is drafted but rather to approve or disapprove requests for exemptions and deferments should a draft be held. Any applicant denied a deferment or exemption may appeal to a higher-level 'Area Board' and, above that, to a single 'National Board.'

None of these boards would actually meet in person unless Congress approves "mobilization" of the Selective Service. An agency official noted that the Selective Service's "Mobilization Plan" is unclassified, but nonetheless refused a KPCC reporter's request for the document.

While the boards aren't meeting today, and the agency has yet to be mobilized, the Selective Service does maintain an active lobbying campaign with individual state legislatures across the country.

Whether women would be included in any future draft is up in the air. 

This story is a part of the American Homefront Project — a joint effort of KPCC, KUOW and WUNC — reporting on American military life and veterans.  

Jagmeet Mac contributed to this report from Arlington, Va. 

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