Service members, civilians bound by DOD rules during election campaigns

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A sailor registers for the 2012 presidential election and submits an absentee ballot request to the commandís voting representative aboard the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis while at sea in the Pacific Ocean, Sept. 4, 2012. (Navy photograph by PO3 Claire Farin)
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It’s election season again, when federal, state and local political campaigns kick into high gear. Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper’s latest ethics video lays out the importance of political activity rules that Defense Department civilian employees and service members must follow.

In the 2020 DOD Public Affairs Guidance for Political Campaigns and Elections memorandum of Feb. 11, DOD spokesman Jonathan Rath Hoffman summarized the rules that apply to all DOD personnel regarding involvement in political events.

“The Department of Defense has a longstanding and well-defined policy regarding political campaigns and elections to avoid the perception of DOD sponsorship, approval or endorsement of any political candidate, campaign or cause,” Hoffman wrote.

“The department encourages and actively supports its personnel in their civic obligation to vote, but makes clear members of the armed forces on active duty should not engage in partisan political activities,” his memo read.

Sources of Authority

The Hatch Act is a federal law passed in 1939 that limits certain political activities of federal employees, according to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. It applies to DOD civilian employees. The law’s purposes are to ensure that federal programs are administered in a nonpartisan fashion, to protect federal employees from political coercion in the workplace, and to ensure that federal employees are advanced based on merit and not based on political affiliation, the OSC site added.

DOD policy for service members is contained in Department of Defense Directive 1344.10, Political Activities for Members of the Armed Forces. It is DOD policy to encourage members of the armed forces to carry out the obligations of citizenship while keeping with the traditional concept that members on active duty should not engage in partisan political activity. All members of the armed forces, including active-duty members, members of the reserve components not on active duty, and retired members are prohibited from wearing military uniforms at political campaign or election events.

As the secretary said in his ethics video, both active-duty service members and civilian employees must understand federal rules and DOD policies pertaining to political activities. Service members and employees should direct any questions to their supervisors or their supporting legal office, said a senior official in DOD’s Standards of Conduct Office.

Resources

For particulars and more in-depth information concerning political activities, check out DOD Directive 1344.10 for service members and the U.S. Office of Special Counsel website for civilian employees.

Ethics and Leadership

In his ethics video, and in previous ethics messages to the department, Esper emphasized the importance of leaders regularly training their subordinates in the importance of maintaining ethical standards.

“Maintaining the hard-earned trust and confidence of the American people requires us to avoid any action that could imply endorsement of a political party, political candidate or campaign by any element of the department,” he said.

“As the secretary has stated, we must continuously train and prepare so that we are ready to do what is right when ethical dilemmas arise,” said Scott Thompson, director of DOD’s Standards of Conduct Office. “Training is not a one-time event. The secretary expects department leaders to be personally involved in training their organizations, and to talk about examples of ethical decision-making, good and bad. In addition to annual ethics training, leaders should routinely make conversations about ethics a natural part of meetings and engagements with personnel.”

As leaders, teammates and colleagues, all must inspire one another by setting the right example of ethical conduct, Thompson emphasized.

“Shortly after taking office, Secretary Esper reminded DOD personnel that each of us takes a solemn oath to support and defend the Constitution. The department’s mission imparts a special responsibility on each of us to serve with the utmost integrity and be vigilant in protecting the duties and confidences with which we have been entrusted,” he added. “To ensure we are ready to do what is right when ethical dilemmas arise, we must train and prepare ourselves.”

Editor’s note: Katie Lange of Defense Media Activity contributed to this report.

Voting poster encouraging service members and civilians to vote in local, regional, state and federal elections in 2014. (Marine Corps graphic by Cpl. Anthony Brosilow)
James Brady, 14th Force Support Squadron community readiness specialist and installation voting assistance officer, talks with Air Force Staff Sgt. Cory Henning, 14th Civil Engineer Squadron, during Armed Forces Voters Week in the base exchange on Columbus Air Force Base, Miss., June 27, 2018. Though federal election years have a large effect on the voting community and activity, elections are happening across the country every year. (Air Force photograph by Airman 1st Class Keith Holcomb)
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