Election season playbook for political activities

  • Published
  • By Capt. Brian Shust
  • 50th Space Wing Legal office
Election season has kicked-off.  Whether you root for donkeys, elephants or some other breed of political persuasion, the following rules of the game should guide your political participation as we move to the November election:

For active-duty members

The Department of Defense strongly encourages active-duty members to be active citizens and to exercise their right to vote.  Generally, they may also express their personal opinions on political candidates and issues, but not as Armed Forces' representatives.  Other permissible campaign and election-related activities include:

Attending political events - Members may attend partisan and non-partisan political fundraisers, meetings, rallies, debates and conventions or activities as spectators.  However, they may not do so in uniform.

Petitions - Members may sign petitions to support specific legislative action or to place a candidate's name on an election ballot, as long as they do so as private citizens and do not obligate themselves to engage in partisan politics.

Letters to the editor - Individuals may write letters to newspaper editors expressing personal views on issues or candidates, as long as the letters are not part of an organized letter-writing campaign and do not solicit votes for particular candidates.  If a member authors such a letter, the letter should clearly state the views in the letter are solely those of the member and not those of the DOD.

Donating money - Members may donate money to political organizations, parties or committees favoring a particular candidate or slate of candidates.

Bumper Stickers - Military members may put political bumper stickers on private vehicles.

On the other hand, members may not actively engage in partisan politics and should avoid political activities that may cause others to conclude the DOD has approved or endorsed a particular candidate or party.  Examples of prohibited political activities include campaigning for a candidate, soliciting contributions, marching in a partisan parade and wearing a uniform to a partisan event.  Specifically:

Other Campaigning Prohibitions - Individuals may not speak before partisan political gatherings or participate in radio, television or other programming as an advocate for/against a political party, candidate or cause.  They may not work for partisan political campaigns or candidates at any time--from the start of a campaign until one week after an election.

Prohibitions on displays - Individuals may not display large political signs on private vehicles.  They are also prohibited from displaying partisan political signs on their residences on military installations, including privatized housing residences.

Social networking websites are another public avenue for sharing political opinions.  The following rules provide specific guidance on what is permitted and prohibited:

General expressions of personal views - Members may generally express personal views on public issues or political candidates via social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter or blogs.  If a member's social media account identifies him/her as active-duty, the account must clearly state the views provided are personal and not held by the DOD.

Posting/directing links, Facebook comments, tweeting - Active-duty members may not post or include direct links to a political party, partisan political candidate, campaign or cause. Moreover, they may not post or comment on the Facebook pages or tweet at the Twitter accounts of a political party, or partisan political candidate, campaign or cause.

Liking, friending, following - Active-duty members may "friend" or "like" Facebook pages or "follow" Twitter accounts of a political party or partisan candidate, campaign or cause. However, they may not suggest others do the same or forward invites from those entities to others.

Non-active-duty members and DOD civilian employees

Non-active-duty members and civilian DOD employees may participate in all of the activities permitted above.  They may also participate in the activities prohibited to active-duty members, including social media discussions, as long as they do not do so while on duty or in uniform, and do not act in a manner that gives the appearance of DOD approval or endorsement. 

For civilian DOD employees, 5 U.S.C. §§ 7321-7326, otherwise known as the Hatch Act, provides guidance on permitted and prohibited partisan political activity.  Specifically, on-duty civilian DOD employees may not wear, display or distribute campaign materials, and they may not participate in social media activities relating to partisan politics.  At no time may they run in partisan political elections.  However, off-duty civilian DOD employees may attend and participate in partisan political rallies, meetings and clubs. They may also hold office in partisan political clubs and parties and may campaign for/against referendum questions, constitutional amendments and municipal ordinances.  Further, civilian DOD employees may make campaign speeches for candidates in partisan elections and may volunteer to work on partisan political campaigns.

This foregoing guidance gives a simple playbook on political participation during the election season.  For more specific guidance as to servicemembers, please see DOD Directive 1344.10, Political Activities by Members of the Armed Forces, and AFI 51-902, Political Activities by Members of the U.S. Air Force.  Contact 50 SW/JA with questions at 567-5050.  Whatever political team you root for, remember that the DOD has to stay on the sidelines.