Political activity by government employees, service members limited

By Brad Rhen | June 10, 2020


In the 1995 movie “Crimson Tide,” Gene Hackman’s character, a Navy submarine captain, proclaimed: “We’re here to preserve democracy, not to practice it.”

While that statement may be true when it comes to following lawful orders, it’s only partially true when it comes to political activity and voting.

With the 2020 election season in full swing – and Pennsylvania’s presidential primary election just around the corner on April 28 – federal employees and uniformed service members are encouraged to exercise their right to vote.

However, there are limits to what kind of political activity they can participate in prior to an election.

The limitations of participation are set forth in the Hatch Act for federal employees and Department of Defense Directive 1344.10 for active-duty service members.

Generally, these regulations state that federal employees and service members acting in their official capacity may not engage in activities that associate the Department of Defense with any partisan political campaign or elections, candidate, cause or issue.

The Hatch Act allows most federal employees to actively participate in political activities on their own time and outside of the workplace. There are, however, significant restrictions on fundraising, running for office in partisan elections and using one's official authority in the political arena.

“The Hatch Act is designed to guard against the misuse of federal employment to promote partisan politics,” said Maj. Johnny Davis, an attorney and legal adviser in the Pennsylvania National Guard’s office of the staff judge advocate at Fort Indiantown Gap.

The Hatch Act has no effect on anyone’s right to register and vote, Davis said, and it does not apply to contractors or retirees.

Under DOD Directive 1344.10, members of the armed forces who are on active duty are permitted to express their personal opinions on political candidates, make a monetary contribution to a campaign, sign a petition to place a candidate's name on the ballot and attend a political event as a spectator.

Service members may not participate in partisan activities such as soliciting or engaging in partisan fundraiser activities, serving as the sponsor of a partisan club or speaking before a partisan gathering. In addition, all military members, including National Guard and Reserve forces, are prohibited from wearing military uniforms at political campaign events.

“The Hatch Act forbids running in a partisan election but not in a non-partisan,” Davis said. “A non-partisan race is simply one in which candidates do not file under a party label.”

Neither the Hatch Act nor DoD Directive 1344,10 restricts placing yard signs in front of one’s home, Davis said.

“Freedom of speech allows you to place any yard signs and flag you wish at your home unless they live on post, then garrison regulations can restrict such displays,” he said.

An employee who violates the Hatch Act is subject to a range of disciplinary actions, including removal or debarment from federal service, reduction in grade, suspension, letter of reprimand or a fine of up to $1,000, Davis said.

Election Do’s and Don’ts
Federal employees and service members may:
• register and vote as they choose.
• be candidates in non-partisan elections.
• assist in voter registration drives.
• contribute money to partisan groups and candidates in partisan elections.
• attend political fundraisers.
• attend and be active at political rallies and meetings.
• join, be active, and hold office in partisan groups.
• sign and circulate nominating petitions.
• campaign for or against candidates in partisan elections.
• make campaign speeches for candidates in partisan elections.
• distribute campaign literature in partisan elections.
• campaign for or against referendum questions, constitutional amendments, or municipal ordinances.
• express opinions about political issues.
• express opinions about partisan groups and candidates in partisan elections while not at work or using official authority

Federal employees and service members may not:
• be candidates in partisan elections.
• use official authority to interfere with an election or while engaged in political activity.
• invite subordinate employees to political events or otherwise suggest that they engage in political activity.
• knowingly solicit or discourage the political activity of any person with business before the agency.
• solicit, accept, or receive political contributions (including hosting or inviting others to political fundraisers) unless both persons are members of the same federal labor or employee organization, the person solicited is not a subordinate employee, the solicitation is for a contribution to the organization’s political action committee, and the solicitation does not occur while on duty or in the workplace.
• engage in political activity while on duty, in the workplace, wearing a uniform or official insignia, or in a government vehicle. This includes: wearing, displaying or distributing partisan materials or items; performing campaign-related chores; making political contributions; and using email or social media to engage in political activity