Randomization and Social Affairs: The 1970 Draft Lottery

Science  22 Jan 1971:
Vol. 171, Issue 3968, pp. 255-261
DOI: 10.1126/science.171.3968.255


Randomization has played an important role in social affairs, going back at least to biblical days. The drawing of lots, one of the simplest forms of randomization, has been used publicly in many different contexts.

Although the legal use of randomization techniques and lotteries in the United States dates back at least to the mid-19th century, only recently have the federal courts recognized the need for proper randomization to assure fairness, lack of bias, and lack of discrimination.

A recent presidential commission has supported the call for all-volunteer armed forces (29), but it appears that the recommendations of this commission are at least several years away from becoming law. In fact, it has been suggested that the present lottery system is retarding any moves toward allvolunteer armed forces by reducing the number of draft-induced volunteers, and thereby necessitating an increase in the number of draftees. So, in the short run, it appears that the draft lottery will be the means by which the United States will man much of itsarmed forces. Since this is the case, it is important that future lotteries achieve equity in selection and that the lack of randomization present in previous lotteries be eliminated. [Indeed, it is interesting to note that several young men have filed suit in federal court, seeking to void the 1970 drawing and to force a new lottery. The basis of these suits is the lack of proper randomization (30).]

The 1917 and 1940 Selective Service draft lotteries have served in the past as indications that the commonly held notion of "randomness" is often at variance with the strict statistical meaning. The 1970 draft lottery has not helped to mitigate the doubts of many regarding the equity and fairness of random drawings, although the recent 1971 draft lottery sets a very positive example, which, it is hoped, will counteract the effects of the earlier lotteries.

Since randomization does have a role in the everyday workings of society, it is important that the public be educated to accept the proper use of randomization, while rejecting attempts to use chance as a disguise for inequity, bias, and unlawful discrimination. As one step toward this end, future draft lotteries should adhere to a reasonable definition of randomness, and the public should be well informed of the precautions taken to preclude arbitrary features that have marred previous draft lotteries. In addition, it is clearly desirable that the Selective Service provide the public with an official statement giving all relevant details on the design and execution of the lotteries. The most recent draft lottery serves as an admirable model in this regard.

Note added in proof: Professor Hans Zeisel has brought to my attention the details of the draft procedure used in Austria-Hungary between 1889 and the start of World War I. This draft procedure was also based on a lottery, with every person liable for the draft (or a representative) drawing a slip of paper on which was recorded a number indicating a place in the draft list. It is conceivable that Selective Service officials, in charge of the World War I lottery in the United States, were familiar with the details of this draft lottery procedure.