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Q: I am a federal employee working for the Department of Defense, and have been closely following the upcoming elections. Are there restrictions on my involvement?
A: Although serving as a federal employee does not prohibit a person from participating in our country’s political process, there are restrictions on how such employees may participate.
A federal law passed in 1939, named after former Senator Carl Hatch of New Mexico, prevents federal employees from conducting certain political activities on, and sometimes off, duty.
The law, commonly referred to as the Hatch Act, prohibits federal employees from using their position to influence or interfere with an election. A federal employee may not solicit or discourage political activity from anyone who has business before the employee’s agency. Federal employees also may not wear political buttons while on duty or display political items such as posters, signs or stickers in the workplace. They may not run for public office in partisan elections, solicit or receive political contributions, or host political fundraisers at their home. More extensive restrictions exist for employees of certain federal agencies, such as the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Although the Hatch Act does not apply to military personnel, DoD Directive 1344.10 imposes similar restrictions on their political activities. As with other federal employees, military personnel may not use their position to influence or interfere with an election. Additional restrictions exist, due to the differences between civilian and military life. For example, although a service member may display a political bumper sticker on his or her private vehicle, he or she may not display a partisan political sign at his or her residence if the residence is on post and the sign is visible to the public .
Consequences for violating the Hatch Act can be serious. During the last election, a federal employee used his government computer to e-mail co-workers and solicit funds for a particular political candidate. He was suspended from duty and pay for 120 days. A different federal employee under similar circumstances was terminated.
None of this is to say, however, that federal employees may not participate in the political process. They may register and vote as they wish. They may also assist in voter registration drives, contribute money to political organizations, attend and participate in political rallies, and distribute campaign literature, among other things, so long as they do so outside the scope of their employment.
This column is not intended as individual or specific legal advice. If you have specific issues or concerns, you should consult a judge advocate at 421-4152/civ. 0711-729-4152.