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Political correctness: deciphering rules for civilian, military participation

  • Published
  • By Judge Advocate's Office
  • Robins Public Affairs
We're well into the 2016 election year, so it's helpful to review the rules pertaining to civilian employees under the Hatch Act, as well as the rules pertaining to military members. 

Regardless who you're voting for, knowing these rules is essential to avoiding the negative consequences of violations.   

Guidelines for civilians
The basic rule is that an employee may not engage in political activity while on duty, in a government room or building, while wearing an official uniform, or using a government vehicle.

Clothing and pictures in the workplace
The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from wearing partisan political buttons or other such items or displaying partisan political pictures, signs, stickers, or badges while on duty or at work. That includes pictures of candidates, even when the picture doesn't say anything like "Vote for X." 

Bumper stickers on cars
An employee may place a partisan political bumper sticker on his personal vehicle and park that vehicle in a federal parking lot or garage. Employees must be cautioned, though, against displaying other partisan political materials, or even bumper stickers, in such a way that makes the vehicle appear to be a "campaign mobile." Also, on base, AFI 31-204/RAFB Supplement, paragraph 4.2.15, prohibits the on-base display of bumper stickers or other signs or paraphernalia that embarrass or disparage the President. 

Social Media
A federal employee may write a blog or a post on a site such as Facebook on which he or she expresses support or opposition to partisan political candidates and parties, but subject to the following limitations. 

While federal employees are not prohibited from expressing their opinions, they are prohibited from engaging in political activity while on duty or in a building occupied by federal employees in the discharge of official duties. Federal employees are prohibited from these actions while on duty.

However, doing so outside of work and in another location would not violate the Hatch Act.

The Hatch Act also prohibits federal employees from using their official authority or influence to affect the result of an election. Therefore, they shouldn't identify their official titles or use their statuses as federal employees to bolster the opinions concerning political parties, candidates or groups that they post on their blogs/Facebook. 

Supervisors who are "friends" with their subordinates may advocate for or against a political party, group, or candidate for public office on their Facebook pages (off-duty, of course).

While supervisors can't use their authority to influence an election, this wouldn't violate the Hatch Act, as long as the supervisor's statements are directed at all of his Facebook "friends."

It would violate the Hatch Act if the supervisor specifically directed the comments toward his subordinates, or to a subset of "friends" that includes subordinates, by sending a Facebook "message."  In that situation, the supervisor is purposefully targeting subordinates with the message. 
Don't use government email to send or forward emails supporting or opposing a candidate. 
Guidelines for the military
Different than civilian employees, military members do not fall under the Hatch Act. Restrictions on military members are established in DOD Directive 1344.10 and AFI 51-902. These restrictions don't apply to the Federal Voter Assistance Program. FVAP is specifically authorized by congress and both the DOD directive and AFI specifically authorize military members to participate fully in it.    

Military members may:
*Register to vote, vote, and express a personal opinion on political candidates and issues, but not as a representative of the Air Force or DOD.

*Promote or encourage others to vote, so long as official authority or influence is not used to interfere with the outcome of any election.

*Join/be active members of a political party or club (cannot wear military uniform or be officers/sponsors).  

*Attend political rallies, fundraisers and meetings as spectators when not in uniform and when no reasonable inference of official support of the event can be drawn (cannot speak at political events)  

*Serve as an election official only if that service is not as a representative of a political party, does not interfere with the performance of military duties, is performed when not in uniform, and the SECAF has given prior approval.

*Military members can sign and circulate nominating petitions if the signing does not obligate you to engage in partisan political activity and is done as a private citizen.

*Write a letter to the editor of a newspaper expressing your personal views on public issues or political candidates, if writing is not part of an organized letter-writing campaign.  If the letter identifies you as being on active duty, the letter should clearly state that the views expressed are yours only and not those of the DOD (rule also applies to social media such as Twitter and Facebook).  

*Make monetary contributions to a political organization, party, or committee favoring a particular candidate, subject to limitations under federal law.

*Display a political bumper sticker on a private vehicle (but not a large political sign, banner, or poster). 

*Wear a political button or T-shirt when not in uniform, performing military duties, or under circumstances that could give rise to an appearance of endorsement. 

Military members may not:
*Participate in partisan political fundraising activities, rallies, conventions (including making speeches), management of campaigns, or debates.  

*Use official authority to interfere with an election, to solicit votes for a particular candidate or issue, or to solicit political contributions.

*Serve in any official capacity or be listed as a sponsor of a political club.

*Speak before a partisan political gathering, including any gathering that promotes a partisan political party, candidate or cause.

*Participate in any radio, television, or other program or group discussion as an advocate of a partisan political party, candidate, or cause.

*Perform clerical or other duties for a partisan political committee or candidate during a campaign, on an election day, or after an election day during the process of closing out a campaign.

*March/ride in a political parade.

*Display a partisan political sign at your residence if you live on base (including privatized housing).

*Participate, while in uniform, in any activity such as unofficial public speeches, interviews, marches, etc. which may imply Air Force sanction of the cause for which the demonstration or activity is conducted.

*Sell tickets for, or otherwise actively promote, partisan political dinners and similar fundraising events.

*Engage in the public or organized recruitment of others to become partisan candidates for nomination or election to office.

When in doubt about the rules surrounding political participation for your airmen and civilian employees, don't hesitate to reach out to our ethics counselors at 78th Air Base Wing Judge Advocate's Office in Bldg. 708.