Guidelines help keep Soldiers part of the voting process
July 16, 2012
GRAFENWOEHR, Germany -- With partisan vitriol ablaze and the presidential election quickly approaching, political identity is gaining importance for many citizens. But, while under the employ of the Army or Department of Defense, what kind of political self-expression is allowed? Can a Soldier or DOD civilian post their political views on Facebook? Can they Tweet support to their favorite candidate?
And how can a Soldier, spouse or anyone living abroad exercise their right of franchise and vote on Nov. 6?
In communicating partisan sentiments, Soldiers and federal civilian employees represent two distinct categories.
Service members have far fewer freedoms in their political life than do civilians. There are restrictions for Soldiers when donating to candidates already employed by the U.S. government. Soldiers may be card-carrying members of a political party and may support candidates via signs, stickers and buttons. They may participate as spectators during political rallies, provided they are out of uniform and off duty.
They cannot, however, identify themselves by their official titles while politicking. And, while attending rallies and gatherings as participants passes scrutiny, Soldiers are banned from speaking publicly at them.
"It's your right as an American to choose your leaders, but it's your duty as a Soldier to support the American government as a whole," explained Jess Hofberger, administrative law attorney at the Grafenwoehr Law Center.
"Your vote counts the same as anyone's, but remember that your uniform, rank and duty position belong to the American people."
Campaigning for a particular candidate or party is also off-limits. This includes soliciting funds from others, marching in a partisan parade, distributing literature and working as part of a campaign.
Civilians, meanwhile, may participate in almost every form of political theater. They can attend rallies and fundraisers, distribute literature, openly support a candidate and even act as a political party delegate or officer. They can also run for nonpartisan office and donate freely to candidates of their choosing.
A main tenant for both civilians and Soldiers is drawing the line between personal opinions and those of the Army or Department of Defense. Soldiers and civilians have political opinions, can discuss and foster them, but they cannot insinuate that the Army or DOD holds the same convictions.
This means that civilians can't claim to speak for the DOD while professing ideas and Soldiers may never wear their uniform to a political event.
A YouTube video entitled "Election2012 -- Know the Facts," distributed by the Army sums it up: "You represent your own views, but your uniform represents so much more."
The ubiquity of social media has created a wide frontier for political expression and campaigning. The armed forces have developed highly nuanced regulations for service members on the Web.
Soldiers can "friend" or "like" a political party, candidate or ideal, and "follow" politicians and candidates on Twitter. Posting, tweeting or blogging about personal political views passes muster if the writer makes it clear that their views do not reflect those of the Army or federal departments.
Disallowed activities are often only a shade different than allowed ones, and easy to stumble onto for avid social media users. For example, Soldiers must refrain from linking directly to the webpage of any political party, partisan political candidate, campaign, group or cause. Linking is considered literature distribution by the Army, which is off-limits for service members.
Soldiers are also barred from commenting on any partisan Facebook pages or tweeting at any political entity. Public suggestions to "like," "friend" or "follow" any political person or group is deemed as campaigning or soliciting and is a no-go under Army standards.
Soldiers who state their rank and service on any social media site are advertising their association with the Army and are under increased scrutiny.
Voting assistance officers are provided at the unit level to help answer questions and smooth the process of voting absentee:
1. Long Distance Voter, www.longdistancevoter.org, provides state-specific information on how to register to vote and how to apply for an absentee ballot.
The site is more tailored toward absentee voters living within the United States and directs them to voting application forms that don't take into account the special needs of voters living abroad.
2. The Federal Voting Assistance Program (www.fvap.gov) caters to Americans living overseas, particularly service members and their dependents. The process is simple and straight-forward, walking ballot applicants through their states' requirements and allowing for CMR boxes as a stand-in for a temporary residence.
3. For Soldiers, voting assistance officers at the unit level can help answer questions and smooth the process of voting absentee.
FVAP.gov recommends voters to send in their ballot three weeks before elections, which means for all those wishing to vote in the national elections on Nov. 6, marked and voted ballots should be in no later than Oct. 16.
FVAP.gov ballot applications necessitate a driver's license or, for nondriving residents, an ID card that designates residency.
FVAP.gov will also pay for postage assuming the solicitor has a standard number 10 envelope at the ready for the postage-paid envelope template, but faxing and e-mailing the application is also an option for many states.