When service members first don their uniforms and pick up their rifles, they do not set aside their citizenship. They reaffirm it, vow to guard it and assume the responsibility to maintain the professionalism of their station.
Exercising civic rights and upholding military obligations can be a balancing act for service members.
While they are encouraged to participate in the political institutions they protect, they are also required to separate their political beliefs from the uniforms they wear.
“There are some significant things military members can and can’t do differing from their civilian counterparts,” said 1st Lt. Stephen Otis, installation voting officer and deputy adjutant for Marine Corps Installations East – Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. “We definitely want to encourage voting and participation in the upcoming election, but it’s very important members of the military and Department of Defense civilians alike do not give the impression they are representing the military or the United States government in any way.”
Guidance for appropriate political activities for military and DOD personnel can be found in DOD Directive 1344.10.
In general, military personnel may not actively participate in partisan political activities, to include fundraising, serving as an officer for a political club, speaking at partisan gatherings, appearing in uniform for political events, seeking nomination for civil office or attending political events as a representative for the military.
The restrictions apply to how service members advertise their political affiliation on their property as well. Bumper stickers supporting candidates and parties are allowed on vehicles. However, large political signs, banners and posters are not allowed. Service members living in base housing are not permitted to have political signage visible to the public at their residence, which may be construed as the government supporting a particular political cause.
“That can also transfer over to social networking,” said Otis. “That’s the big thing because it’s exponentially more popular in this election than it was in past elections. You can endorse a candidate, but you cannot state you’re a [service member] and this is who you want to win the election. It needs to be stated it’s your opinion, and it doesn’t reflect the organization of the [branch you serve under] or the DOD.”
Service members are allowed to express their opinions about political candidates and issues, but they must refrain from doing so as a representative of the military. Attending political events, provided it is not done in uniform, is allowed and does not constitute participation in the event.
Service members can join political clubs, attend partisan and nonpartisan gatherings, make monetary contributions to campaigns and parties, and even blog their personal opinions. At the end of the day, however, it must be clear the expressed support and opinions are those of the individual.
“We want to make sure everybody gets out to vote and their voice is heard, but it’s important to understand it’s their individual voices and not the DOD’s or the government’s voice. It could constitute a gross conflict of interest if the military endorses a candidate because we receive federal funding.”
Like their military counterparts, DOD civilians are also restricted in their political activities. They may not participate in political activities while in a federal building or on duty, use the insignia of a government office or official authority, solicit or accept political contributions, display campaign paraphernalia inside government buildings, host partisan fundraisers or run for public office in a partisan election.
The restrictions are designed to enforce the military’s separation from political activity restraining any perceived cross over between the military’s service to the nation and the people’s right to fair, unhindered elections. The military branches and DOD are not politically active entities. While they refrain from endorsing candidates and influencing elections, they do encourage their ranks to exercise their civic rights, said Otis.
“There are a multitude of standards in place to help them vote and participate in the elections,” said Otis. “We’re military members, and we serve our country in that respect. It’s also important to serve our country by making sure our voice is heard. We have a say in the elected officials we put into place.”
Story by Lance Cpl. Paul Peterson
Edited by Jessica L. Tozer
Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune