Avoiding Political Pitfalls This Election Season

Avoiding Political Pitfalls This Election Season

April 1st, 2016

It’s election season. So, what does that mean for you as an active-duty service member? One of our most important obligations of citizenship is casting a ballot and making our voices heard by voting. The Department of Defense encourages all members of the Armed Forces to register and vote.

The DoD actively supports the Federal Voting Assistance Program to ensure our personnel have the resources, time and ability to participate in their civic duty. Additionally, DoD leaders and military commanders appoint voting assistance officers at every level of command and ensure they are trained and equipped to provide voting assistance. Service members can vote, but there are many rules that limit our political behavior and activities – at work, at home, and in and out of uniform. This makes sense because we hold America’s trust and we can’t behave in any manner that would betray that trust; as an institution, the military can’t choose sides in an election.

As former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General (ret.) Martin E. Dempsey stated, “We are not elected to serve; rather, we elect to serve.” So it should come as no surprise that there are rules that govern political activities by members of the Armed Forces. Those rules can be found in DoD Directive 1344.10, Political Activities by Members of the Armed Forces. Most importantly, members on active duty cannot engage in partisan political activity. What does that mean? Partisan political activity is activity supporting or relating to candidates representing, or issues specifically identified with national or state political parties, e.g., the Republican and Democratic national committees, and associated organizations or clubs.

So what are some examples of prohibited activities?

  • Can’t participate in a partisan fundraiser or event (for example, you can’t make a speech or stuff envelopes, even if you’re not wearing your uniform).
  • Can’t hand out partisan political literature (even if you’re not wearing your uniform).
  • Can’t march or ride in a partisan political parade (even if you’re not wearing your uniform).
  • Can’t write articles soliciting votes – this includes posts on social media asking your friends to vote for a certain political candidate. You also can’t forward an invitation or solicitation from the political candidate or party to your friends.
  • Can’t post or make direct links to, share or retweet comments or tweets from the Facebook page or twitter account of a political party or candidate running for partisan office.
What kind of activities are permitted?
  • Can attend partisan political fundraisers or events as a spectator when not in uniform and no inference or appearance of official sponsorship, approval or endorsement can be reasonably drawn.
  • Can display a political bumper sticker.
  • Can contribute money to a political party or candidate outside the workplace.
  • Can express personal views on political candidates via social media platforms. However, if the site or post identifies you as active duty (for example, your Facebook profile picture is of you in uniform), you need to post a disclaimer, such as: “The views expressed are mine and are not those of the DoD.”
  • Can become a “friend” of, or “like” the social media account of a political party or partisan candidate, group or cause.
Members not on active duty, i.e., Reservists and retirees, are not subject to these same restrictions. However, they may not participate in partisan political activities while in uniform.  Political activities that imply or appear to imply official DoD sponsorship, approval or endorsement should be avoided.  There are also additional rules outlined in DoD Directive 1344.10 for Reserve members and retirees becoming nominees or candidates for civil (public) office.
  • A reoccurring issue is whether Reserve members and retirees running for civil office can use pictures of themselves in uniform in their campaign media. They cannot use or allow the use of photographs of themselves in uniform as the primary graphic representation in any campaign media. However, they can use a photograph in uniform, as well as include their current or former specific military duty, title, or position, when displayed with other non-military biographical details. Any such military information must be accompanied by a prominent and clearly displayed disclaimer that neither the military information nor photographs imply endorsement by the DoD or Department of the Navy.
As always, if you’re not sure what you can do, please ask! Your command’s ethics counselor (usually, the JAG or civilian general counsel for the command) is there to help!