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Military Folks and Politics

What You Can and Cannot Do


US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Embarks On Trip To Middle East
Mark Wilson / Staff/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Updated June 16, 2014
A few weeks ago, I received a letter requesting I vote for a specific candidate. The letter was signed by a person claiming to be a retired two star Army General. I wonder if this General knew he had violated the regulations by signing this letter?

I receive a lot of questions about what military members are allowed and not allowed to do when it comes to politics. Federal Law (Titles 10, 2, and 18, United States Code), Department of Defense (DOD) Directives, and specific military regulations strictly specify a military active duty person's participation in partisan political activities.

DOD defines "partisan political activity" as "activity supporting or relating to candidates representing, or issues specifically identified with, national or State political parties and associated or ancillary organizations."

A "Nonpartisan political activity is defined as "activity supporting or relating to candidates not representing, or issues not specifically identified with, national or State political parties and associated or ancillary organizations. Issues relating to constitutional amendments, referendums, approval of municipal ordinances, and others of similar character are not considered as specifically being identified with national or State political parties."

The military wants its personnel to participate in our democratic process -- within limits. DOD encourages active duty military members to vote, and has established several programs to help active duty personnel to register and cast absentee ballots. What career military officer or senior NCO has never had to pull a stint as unit "voting officer," or "voting NCO?" But, when it comes to actively campaigning for a specific political candidate or partisan objective, the military draws the line.

It should be noted that these prohibitions do not apply to members of the National Guard or Reserves, unless they are currently serving on active duty. For the purposes of political activity restrictions, DoD defines active duty as: Full-time duty in the active military service of the United States regardless of duration or purpose, including:

  • Full-time training duty;

  • Annual training duty; and

  • Attendance, while in the active military service, at a school designated as a Service school.

What Active Duty Members Can and Cannot Do

Can - Register, vote, and express a personal opinion on political candidates and issues, but not as a representative of the Armed Forces.

Can - Promote and encourage other military members to exercise their voting franchise, if such promotion does not constitute an attempt to influence or interfere with the outcome of an election.

Can - Join a political club and attend its meetings when not in uniform.

Can - Serve as an election official, if such service is not as a representative of a partisan political party, does not interfere with the performance of military duties, is performed when not in uniform, and the Secretary concerned has given prior approval. The Secretary concerned may NOT delegate the authority to grant or deny such permission.

Can - Sign a petition for specific legislative action or a petition to place a candidate's name on an official election ballot, if the signing does not obligate the member to engage in partisan political activity and is done as a private citizen and not as a representative of the Armed Forces.

Can - Write a letter to the editor of a newspaper expressing the member’s personal views on public issues or political candidates, if such action is not part of an organized letter-writing campaign or a solicitation of votes for or against a political party or partisan political cause or candidate. If the letter identifies the member as on active duty (or if the member is otherwise reasonably identifiable as a member of the Armed Forces), the letter should clearly state that the views expressed are those of the individual only and not those of the Department of Defense.

Can - Make monetary contributions to a political organization, party, or committee favoring a particular candidate or slate of candidates, subject to the limitations of law.

Can - Display a political sticker on the member's private vehicle.

Can - Attend partisan and nonpartisan political fundraising activities, meetings, rallies, debates, conventions, or activities as a spectator when not in uniform and when no inference or appearance of official sponsorship, approval, or endorsement can reasonably be drawn.

Can - Participate fully in the Federal Voting Assistance Program.

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