Military Folks and Politics

What You Can and Cannot Do

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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.

What Active Duty Members Can and Cannot Do

Cannot - Participate in partisan political fundraising activities, rallies, conventions (including making speeches in the course thereof), management of campaigns, or debates, either on one’s own behalf or on that of another, without respect to uniform or inference or appearance of official sponsorship, approval, or endorsement. Participation includes more than mere attendance as a spectator.

Cannot - Use official authority or influence to interfere with an election, affect the course or outcome of an election, solicit votes for a particular candidate or issue, or require or solicit political contributions from others.

Cannot -Allow or cause to be published partisan political articles, letters, or endorsements signed or written by the member that solicits votes for or against a partisan political party, candidate, or cause. However, letters to the editor are allowed.

Cannot - Serve in any official capacity with or be listed as a sponsor of a partisan political club.

Cannot - Speak before a partisan political gathering, including any gathering that promotes a partisan political party, candidate, or cause.

Cannot - Participate in any radio, television, or other program or group discussion as an advocate for or against a partisan political party, candidate, or cause.

Cannot - Conduct a political opinion survey under the auspices of a partisan political club or group or distribute partisan political literature.

Cannot - Perform clerical or other duties for a partisan political committee or candidate during a campaign, on an election day, or after an election day during the process of closing out a campaign.

Cannot - Solicit or otherwise engage in fundraising activities in Federal offices or facilities, including military reservations, for any political cause or candidate.

Cannot - March or ride in a partisan political parade.

Cannot - Display a large political sign, banner, or poster (as distinguished from a bumper sticker) on a private vehicle.

Cannot - Display a partisan political sign, poster, banner, or similar device visible to the public at one’s residence on a military installation, even if that residence is part of a privatized housing development.

Cannot - Participate in any organized effort to provide voters with transportation to the polls if the effort is organized by or associated with a partisan political party, cause, or candidate.

Cannot - Sell tickets for or otherwise actively promote partisan political dinners and similar fundraising events.

Cannot - Attend partisan political events as an official representative of the Armed Forces, except as a member of a joint Armed Forces color guard at the opening ceremonies of the national conventions of the Republican, Democratic, or other political parties recognized by the Federal Elections Committee or as otherwise authorized by the Secretary concerned.

Cannot - 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.

Cannot - Any activity that may be reasonably viewed as directly or indirectly associating the Department of Defense or the Department of Homeland Security (in the case of the Coast Guard) or any component of these Departments with a partisan political activity or is otherwise contrary to the spirit and intention of this Directive shall be avoided.

It's interesting to note at this point that Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) makes it a crime for commissioned officers to use contemptuous words against the above officeholders. Commissioned officers who violate this provision can be court-martialed for a direct violation of Article 88. But, what about enlisted members and warrant officers?

DOD Directive 1344.10 - POLITICAL ACTIVITIES BY MEMBERS OF THE ARMED FORCES ON ACTIVE DUTY, extend these same requirements to all individuals on active duty.

Active duty enlisted members and warrant officers who violate these provisions can be charged under Article 92 of the UCMJ, Failure to Obey an Order or Regulation.

So, what about retired members? Well, DOD Directive 1344.10 only applies to active duty, so retired enlisted and warrant officers can pretty much say anything they want concerning the above office-holders. However, Article 2 of the UCMJ specifically states that retired members are subject to the provisions of the UCMJ. Does that mean that retired commissioned officers are prohibited from using contemptious words against the above officeholders? Technically, yes. A retired commissioned officer who utters contemptuous words against the President or other designated officeholders is technically in violation of Article 88. However, DOD Directive 1352.1 - MANAGEMENT AND MOBILIZATION OF REGULAR AND RESERVE RETIRED MILITARY MEMBERS, prohibits recalling a retired military member to active duty solely for the purpose of subjecting them to court-martial jurisdiction.

Therefore, unless that retired commissioned officer was recalled to active duty for other purposes, it would not be possible to subject them to court-martial for a violation of Article 88.

Holding or Running for Political Office

Cannot - Hold civil office in the federal government, if that office:

  • is an elective office.
  • Requires an appointment by the President by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, or
  • Is a position on the executive schedule under sections 5312 through 5317 of title 5, U.S.C.
This prohibition does not apply to retired and reserve members who have been called to active duty for a period of 270 days or less, as long as the office does not interfere with military duties. If the retired or reserve members receives orders which state active duty recall will be for more than 270 days, the prohibition begins on day one of active duty.

A member on active duty may hold or exercise the functions of a civil office in the U.S. Government that does not fall into one of the three categories described above, including when assigned or detailed to such office to perform such functions, provided there is no interference with military duties.

Cannot - Hold local civil office (state, county, city), with the following two exceptions:

Any enlisted member may seek, hold, and exercise the functions of nonpartisan civil office as a notary public or member of a school board, neighborhood planning commission, or similar local agency, provided that the office is held in a non-military capacity and there is no interference with the performance of military duties.

Any officer may seek, hold, and exercise the functions of a nonpartisan civil office on an independent school board that is located exclusively on a military reservation, provided that the office is held in a non-military capacity and there is no interference with the performance of military duties.

Again, this prohibition does not apply to retired and reserve members who have been called to active duty for a period of 270 days or less, as long as the office does not interfere with military duties. If the retired or reserve members receives orders which state active duty recall will be for more than 270 days, the prohibition begins on day one of active duty.

Finally, a catch-all: When circumstances warrant, the Secretary concerned or the Secretary's designee may permit a member covered by the prohibition against holding public office, above, to remain or become a nominee or a candidate for civil office. What that means is that if a Congressman, retired from the military were recalled to active duty for more than 270 days, the Secretary of the service could allow them to retain their public office (or, even become a candidate for re-election).

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