Understanding the rules related to political activities

  • Published
  • By Maj. Christopher Baker
  • 28th Bomb Wing Deputy Staff Judge Advocate
As servicemembers likely have noticed, political advertisements are airing on TV, radio and the occasional billboard along the interstate. "Vote for Me" and "Don't Vote for My Opponent" seem to be the standard messages.

Whether for a political candidate or cause, sometimes, these advertisements target servicemembers. Even the Air Force Times has pointed out how the military vote can impact elections.

With all of the information available, it is important to remember that as members and employees of the United States Armed Forces (i.e., active duty, Reserve component and Air Force civilian employees), there are certain rules we need to be aware of to keep us from crossing the line when it comes to political activities.

While voting is an important constitutional right, it is also important to remember that military members and civilian employees also must follow laws and regulations created under the Constitution, some of which restrict our political activities.

One of these laws is known as the Hatch Act, which severely limits the partisan political activities of federal government employees. The Hatch Act under pins a line of government regulations, including Air Force Instruction (AFI) 51-902, Political Activities by Members of the U.S. Air Force. This is a punitive AFI, meaning military personnel may be punished under the Uniform Code of Military Justice for violating certain provisions of the instruction.

Another important law affecting political involvement of federal employees (including military members) is found in the federal criminal code. Title 18, Section 1913 of the U.S. Code prohibits any appropriated funds from being used to influence any legislation or policy through any official of any governmental body. While the law provides narrow exceptions which apply to only a few employees worldwide, this statute essentially establishes a criminal offense for most executive branch employees to use duty time, offices, computers, printers, electronic mail, telephones, networks or other equipment to participate in lobbying Congress or any state or local legislative or executive body. For example, Air Force personnel may not use government email to encourage others to contact Congress to vote for or against a pay raise for military personnel or pending legislation or regulations related to a pipeline or mining project. Notably, this law in no way affects employees' ability to complain to Congress or their chain of command about workplace wrongs they believe have been committed against them or others.

Some of the guidelines and restrictions arising from the many laws, regulations, directives and instructions are as follows:

Military members should:
· Become informed of the issues and the positions of the candidates.

Military members may:
· Register to vote and then vote.
· Express personal political opinions. There can be no indication, however, that such opinion represents that of the U.S. Air Force.
· Attend political meetings or rallies while not in uniform.
· Display small political stickers on private vehicles.
· Wear political buttons while not in uniform and not on duty.
· Make monetary contributions to a political organization or political committee favoring a particular candidate.

Military members SHALL NOT:
· Make a campaign contribution to, or receive or solicit (on one's own behalf) a campaign contribution from, any other member of the Armed Forces on active duty, or an officer or employee of the federal government, for promoting a political objective or cause.
· Participate in partisan political management, campaigns and conventions or make public speeches in the course of such activity.
· Serve in an official capacity for partisan political organizations.
· Speak before a partisan political gathering of any kind or promoting a partisan political party or candidate.
· March or ride in a partisan political parade.
· Display a partisan political sign, poster, banner or similar device visible to the public at one's residence on a military installation, even if one's residence is part of a privatized housing development.
· Display a large political sign, banner or poster (as distinguished from a bumper sticker) on a private vehicle.
· Participate in an organized partisan effort to provide voters with transportation to the polls.
· Use any kind of official authority or influence to interfere with an election, to affect its course or outcome, to solicit votes for a particular candidate or issue, or to require or solicit political contributions from others.

This article does not list all the rules, but the AFI does. The AFI can be accessed from the E-Publishing website: www.e-publishing.af.mil. Questions related to the AFI can be answered at the Ellsworth Air Force Base Law Center, located at 1000 Ellsworth Street, Suite 2700 in Building 2500 (Rushmore Center) at Ellsworth. Civilian employees of the Air Force should contact the Civilian Personnel Office for guidance on political activities.