FORT RUCKER, Ala. (Jan. 7, 2015) -- Since 1939, military members and federal employees have been subject to restricted election season activities.

When questions arise about what is permissible and prohibited with regard to a specific political activity, the Hatch Act is the sole source of information. Ignorance of the law does not excuse an employee's violation of the Hatch Act.

The political activity of government employees has been a concern of government officials since the earliest days of the Republic. Thomas Jefferson, the nation's third president, was among the first to express concern about this issue.

In response to his concern, the heads of the executive departments issued an order which stated that while it is "the right of any officer (federal employee) to give his vote at elections as a qualified citizen … it is expected that he will not attempt to influence the votes of others nor take part in the business of electioneering, that being deemed inconsistent with the spirit of the Constitution …."

However, despite the concerns of Jefferson and other American statesmen, almost a century and a half elapsed before Congress enacted a comprehensive law regarding the political activities of government employees.

The Hatch Act, a federal law passed in 1939, limits certain political activities of federal employees, as well as some state, D.C., and local government employees who work in connection with federally funded programs. 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 law was named for Senator Carl Hatch of New Mexico. It was most recently amended in 2012, limiting the activities of certain state and local government employees.

Military member guidance

U.S. military service members are limited when it comes to political activities. Some restrictions are based in federal law, others in military regulations. The main purpose for these restrictions is to avoid the implication or inference that military members represent some official point of view.

The major military prohibition is against any type of partisan activities. A partisan activity is defined as "activity directed toward the success or failure of a [particular] political party or candidate for a partisan political office or partisan political group."

With the road to the 2016 elections already making some interesting twists and turns, service members will benefit from reviewing this information to make sure they don't run afoul of the regulations while supporting their favorite causes or candidates.

A military member may: Register, vote and express personal opinions; Encourage other military members to exercise voting rights; Join a political club, and attend political meetings and rallies as a spectator when not in uniform; Make monetary contributions to a political organization; Sign petitions for specific legislative action or place candidate's name on the ballot; Write letters to the editor expressing personal views (so long as not part of organized letter writing campaign); Place bumper stickers on private vehicles; Personal participation in local nonpartisan political activities is allowed, so long as not in uniform and no use of government property or resources, no interference with duty, and no implied government position or involvement.

A military member may not: Use official authority to influence or interfere; Be a candidate for, hold or exercise functions of a civil office; Participate in partisan political campaigns, speeches, articles, TV or radio discussions; Serve in official capacity or sponsor a partisan political club; Conduct political opinion survey; Use contemptuous words against certain civilian leaders (10 U.S.C. 888) -- applies to commissioned officers only; March or ride in partisan parades; Participate in organized effort to transport voters to polls; Promote political dinners or fundraising events; Attend partisan events as official representative of armed forces; Display large signs, banners or posters on private vehicles; Display a partisan political sign, poster, banner, or similar device visible to the public at one's residence on a military installation, even if that residence is part of a privatized housing development; Sell tickets for or otherwise actively promote partisan political dinners and similar fundraising events.

Federal employee guidance

Permitted activities for federal employees include: May be candidates for public office in nonpartisan elections; May register and vote as they choose; May assist in voter registration drives; May express opinions about candidates and issues; May contribute money to political organizations; May attend political fundraising functions; May attend and be active at political rallies and meetings; May join and be an active member of a political party or club; May sign nominating petitions; May campaign for or against referendum questions, constitutional amendments and municipal ordinances; May campaign for or against candidates in partisan elections; May make campaign speeches for candidates in partisan elections; May distribute campaign literature in partisan elections; May hold office in political clubs or parties including serving as a delegate to a convention.

Prohibited activities for federal employees include: May not use their official authority or influence to interfere with an election; May not solicit, accept or receive political contributions unless both individuals are members of the same federal labor organization or employee organization and the one solicited is not a subordinate employee; May not knowingly solicit or discourage the political activity of any person who has business before the agency; May not engage in political activity while on duty; May not engage in political activity in any government office; May not engage in political activity while wearing an official uniform; May not engage in political activity while using a government vehicle; May not be candidates for public office in partisan elections; May not wear political buttons on duty.

Penalties for Violation

So what is the penalty for violating the Hatch Act? For covered federal employees, the most severe penalty of violation is removal. The minimum penalty is suspension without pay for 30 days.

To find out more about the Hatch Act, visit these sites: http://www.oge.gov/Topics/Outside-Employment-and-Activities/Political-Activities/; https://osc.gov/Pages/HatchAct.aspx; http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2014/07/17/do-you-work-in-government-have-you-violated-the-hatch-act-lets-investigate/; https://osc.gov/resources/ha_fed.pdf; or consult DODD 1344.10 Feb 2008 Political Activities by Members of the Armed Forces.