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Ethics regulations guide Airmen in political activities

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (March 24, 2004) -- With less than nine months until the next federal election, political activity is heating up in the nation's capital and around the country.

Airmen may want to get involved in what are some of the most fundamental activities of American democracy: campaigning and politicking. But as employees of the federal government, servicemembers must ensure their participation in political activities does not violate government ethics regulations, said Melinda Loftin, the Air Force associate general counsel for fiscal and administrative law.

"Members of the armed services are encouraged to carry out their obligation of citizenship by voting," Ms. Loftin said. "But while on active duty, they are prohibited from engaging in certain political activities."

Servicemembers cannot participate in the management of partisan politics or be part of a political campaign or convention, Ms. Loftin said. They cannot be a candidate for political office, conduct political opinion surveys, march or ride in partisan parades or participate in organized efforts to transport voters to the polls.

The restrictions on what a servicemember can do may seem numerous, but they serve an important purpose. They are meant to assure the American public that agents of the government, such as servicemembers, do not have undue influence on the American electoral process, officials said.

"The theory behind this is a separation between partisan-political activities and the federal government," Ms. Loftin said. "This is crucial when involving the armed forces because of the need for public confidence in civilian control of the military. If an Airman was wearing a uniform and engaging in political activities, it might give the appearance of an endorsement for a particular candidate by the armed forces."

Servicemembers can express their personal opinions on candidates for office, but they must ensure their opinions are a reflection of themselves and not of the military. Airmen may join political clubs, attend political meetings and rallies as a spectator when not in uniform and make contributions to political organizations. They may also display bumper stickers (but not large signs) on their personal vehicles and sign petitions to put candidates on the ballot, Ms. Loftin said.

Servicemembers may also participate in what is perhaps the most important political activity, Ms. Loftin said.

"Members on active duty may register to vote, they may vote, and [they] are in fact encouraged to vote," she said. Servicemembers are allowed to vote while in uniform.

Issues involving federal employees and political activities are embodied in several publications, including the Joint Ethics Regulation.

Airmen with questions about what political activities they may participate in or with general questions about military ethics standards should contact their base legal office.