Political restrictions apply to servicemembers

By Seth Cowell: Electronic Systems Center Legal Office

HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. — With the 2010 elections coming up, television newscasts and newspaper articles are filled with the latest news about the candidates running for various offices.

While exercising a right to vote is the duty of all Americans, military and civilian federal employees should understand the laws and regulations that outline what constitutes appropriate participation in the political process.

Although the rules for civilian employees are slightly less restrictive, there are common provisions that apply to both civilian employees and military members. The provisions for federal employees are published in the 5 U.S.C. 7321, “The Hatch Act”, DOD 1344.10 and Air Force Instruction 51-902, Political Activities by Members of the U.S. Air Force.

Federal employees are encouraged to participate in the political process. However, these rules are established to ensure that partisan politics and government service are properly and reasonably attenuated to avoid even the appearance of official endorsement of candidates or issues.

The Department of Defense’s Federal Voting Assistance program website, www.vfap.gov, offers servicemembers voting information, including state-by-state absentee voting instructions and registration deadlines.

Civilian employees may:

• Be candidates for public office in nonpartisan elections

• Register and vote as they choose

• Assist in voter registration drives

• Express opinions about candidates and issues

• Contribute money to political organizations

• Attend political fundraising functions

• Attend and be active at political rallies and meetings

• Sign nominating petitions

• Campaign for or against referendum questions, constitutional amendments and municipal ordinances

• Join and be an active member of a political party or club

• Campaign for or against candidates in partisan elections

• Make campaign speeches for candidates in partisan elections

• Distribute campaign literature in partisan elections

• Hold office in political clubs or parties, including serving as a delegate to a convention

Civilian employees may not:

• Use their official authority or influence to interfere with an election

• Solicit, accept or receive political contributions, unless both individuals are members of the same federal labor organization or employee organization, and the one solicited is not a subordinate employee

• Knowingly solicit or discourage the political activity of any person who has business before the agency

• Engage in political activity while on duty

• Engage in political activity in any government office

• Engage in political activity while wearing an official uniform

• Engage in political activity while using a government vehicle

• Be candidates for public office in partisan elections

• Wear political buttons on duty

Servicemembers may:

• Register, vote and express opinions on political candidates and issues, but not as a representative of the U.S. armed forces

• Attend partisan or nonpartisan political meetings, rallies or conventions as a spectator and not in uniform

• Join a political club and attend meetings as a spectator

• Display bumper stickers on a personally owned vehicle or wear campaign buttons on civilian clothes

• Write a letter to the editor regarding public issues, but cannot promote a partisan political cause or candidate

• Make a political contribution to an organization supporting a particular candidate, but cannot contribute to the candidate personally

Servicemembers may not:

• Participate in partisan political campaigns, except as a spectator, or make public speeches related to such activity

• Solicit votes or contributions for a particular candidate or issue

• Use official government authority or influence to interfere with or affect the outcome of an election

• Publish articles or opinions promoting or discouraging partisan political issues or candidates

• Run for or hold civil office

• Take an active role in partisan political activity, including:

• Serve in an official capacity

• Advocate in media

• Conduct opinion polls or other clerical duties during a campaign

• March in a parade

• Actively promote fundraisers