By: Nicole A. LaBelle
Civil and Administrative Law Intern
The Do’s and Don’ts of Supporting Political Organizations when Employed by the Federal Government
Whether you are a DOD Civilian employee or a service member, it is important to know what restrictions apply regarding political activities. This article will describe some of the “do’s” and “don’ts” applicable to federal employees who would like to participate in political parties and activities. Civilians and service members are classified as two different groups, with civilians being broken down separately into two additional groups.
First, we will define political activity. It is defined as an activity directed towards the success or failure of a political party, candidate for partisan office, or partisan political group. Examples would be volunteering for a campaign of a candidate for partisan political office or serving as an officer of a political party or club. Partisan political activity is defined as activity supporting or relating to candidates representing, or issues specifically identified with, national or state political parties and associated or ancillary political organizations. Further examples will be described below.
As a civilian employee, political activities are limited by the Hatch Act. The Hatch Act is a federal law passed in 1939 which limits certain political activities of all federal employees. The intent behind this Act is to protect federal employees from political coercion in the workplace, and to ensure that employees are promoting and advancing in their careers based on merit and not merely political affiliation.
All DoD uniform and civilian employees are prohibited from: (1) using their official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election (e.g. involving subordinates, using one’s official title or position, using agency resources, using non-public agency information for political purposes); (2) knowingly, personally soliciting, accepting or receiving a political contribution from any person (e.g. asking for donations by mail, email, or social media, working a phone bank if asking for contributions, hosting a fundraiser, inviting others to a fundraiser, sharing or liking fundraising posts on social media); (3) running for the nomination or as a candidate for election to a partisan political office; (4) participating in political activity while on-duty or in any room or building occupied in the discharge of official duties by an individual employed by DoD; (5) engaging in political activity while wearing a uniform or official insignia identifying the office or position of the DoD employee; (6) engaging in political activity while using any vehicle owned or leased by the Government of the United States or any agency or instrumentality thereof; (7) knowingly soliciting or discouraging the participation in any political activity of any person who has an application for any compensation, grant, contract, ruling, license, permit, or certificate pending before the employee’s office; and (8) knowingly soliciting or discouraging the participation in any political activity of any person who is the subject of or a participant in an ongoing audit, investigation, or enforcement action being carried out by the employee’s office.
Federal Civilian Employees
As a federal civilian employee, you are either categorized as a Less Restricted Employee or a Further Restricted Employee. It is necessary to know which your job role categorizes you as in order to determine the level of political activities you can engage in. Less Restricted Employees is the most common category. These employees are generally able to actively participate in political management and political campaigns while off-duty, outside a federal facility and not using federal property. Further restricted employees, which are typically employed in either intelligence or enforcement-type agencies, are subject to additional restrictions.
Further Restricted Employees
Further restricted employees are expressly prohibited from participating in political activity even when off-duty. While they may express their personal opinions, make monetary contributions to campaigns and attend campaign parties, they cannot actively participate in campaign events or engage in political activities which is in concert with a political party, group, candidate or office.
Less Restricted Employees
Less restricted employees may engage in partisan political management and campaigns while off-duty, outside a federal facility and not using federal property. However, they cannot, for example, use their official authority to interfere with an election, be candidates for partisan political office, or engage in any political activity while on duty. Here are examples of permissible activities:
(1) Be candidates for public office in nonpartisan elections, (2) register and vote, (3) assist with voter registration drives, (4) contribute money to political campaigns, political parties or partisan groups, (5) attend political fundraising functions, (6) attend and be active at political rallies and meetings, (6) join and be an active member of political clubs or parties, (7) hold office in political clubs and parties, (8) sign and circulate nominating petitions, (9) campaign for or against candidates in partisan elections, (10) make campaign speeches for candidates in partisan elections, (11) volunteer to work on partisan political campaign, (12) put a bumper sticker on a personal vehicle and park the vehicle in a government-owned or subsidized parking lot, but may not use the vehicle in the course of official business, (13) display signs on their lawns and in their residences, and in similar personal circumstances, and (14) express opinions about candidates and issues (if the expression is political activity directed at the success or failure of a political party, candidate for partisan political office or partisan political group, the expression is not permitted while the employee is on duty, in any federal room or building, while wearing a uniform or official insignia or using any federally-owned or leased vehicle.
Military Service Members
Military service-members are subject to the greatest restrictions on their political behavior. In addition to the prohibitions that apply to all federal employees listed above, DoD Directive 1344.10 provides additional guidance to Military Departments (as well as all others within the Department of Defense). Generally, it is DoD policy to encourage all members of the Armed Forces to carry out obligations of American citizenship such as voting. However, per longstanding DoD policy, active duty personnel may not engage in partisan political activities and all military personnel should avoid the inference that their political activities imply or appear to imply DoD sponsorship, approval, or endorsement of a political candidate, campaign, or cause.
In most cases, while taking part in political activism itself is allowed when off-duty, a service member cannot do so while in military uniform to avoid any implicative military endorsement. While general endorsement of a candidate is permitted when not in uniform, not citing one’s rank or official position and while off-duty, some things are off-limits. Regarding displays of support for certain political candidates or campaigns, bumper stickers on personal vehicles are allowed, but that’s about it. Large banners and signs are not allowed on cars, housing, or anything else associated with that service member, particularly on military installations.
Most important to remember is that service-members cannot express opinions on behalf of or as a representative of the U.S. military. While you can and should promote others to exercise the right to vote without endorsing a particular candidate, campaign or cause, you cannot attempt to interfere with the outcome of an election. Other things such as joining political clubs and attending meetings are allowed as a spectator, just not on duty, in uniform or by referencing one’s rank or official position.
As you can see, federal employees and service-members in particular face restrictions on political activity in order to preserve the public trust that government service supports all citizens, not simply for political advantage or benefit of one party, candidate or cause.
For further guidance, visit the DoD Directive here: https://www.fvap.gov/uploads/FVAP/Policies/doddirective134410.pdf and for Federal Employee Hatch Act info, visit: https://osc.gov/Services/Pages/HatchAct-Federal.aspx.