The vast majority of federal government employees and retirees responding to a new Federal Times survey are registered to vote and plan to cast ballots in the presidential election this November, with many saying they feel the civil service has become more politicized than in the past.

The federal workforce is a silent constituency, comprised of millions of employees working in every state. This population lives in rural areas and in cities. They work in highly academic fields and in blue collar occupations. It is a ubiquitous group, but it is not monolithic. And when it comes to politics, opinions may differ, but workers are barred from acting on them at work.

Despite its apolitical nature, this population is not one to be taken for granted, said experts interviewed by Federal Times. Like other citizens, they can vote, and they do, according to a poll of more than 1,000 readers.

“I would say it’s an important constituency in our country,” said Max Stier, founding president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, in an interview. “There are, at the federal level, limitations on the kinds of political activities that federal employees can engage in, but they do get to vote and therefore their vote does matter.”

Almost all — 98% — of the respondents said they are registered voters, and a whopping 95% told Federal Times they intend on casting ballots for president this fall when incumbent Joe Biden faces the Republican nominee, who almost certainly will be former President Donald Trump. That compares with 92% of registered voters and slightly more than two-thirds of all eligible voters who cast ballots in the 2020 elections nationwide.

The Census estimates there were roughly 122 million active U.S. voters in 2022, of which the federal workforce represents a small fraction: about 2.2 million. But counting millions more retirees, service members, sympathetic family and friends, and state and local government workers, the total government workforce has the potential to be a significant voter base, said Brian Baugus, a professor at Regent University who has studied public sector employees’ influence on elections.

“Government employees vote in disproportionately higher numbers than any other employment category,” he told Federal Times via email. “While they are a bit under 10% of the population, they are regularly 12% to 15% of the electorate.”

Experts surmise there are a few reasons for that. For one, Baugus said government workers have a strong vested interest in the outcome of elections. Simply put: executive branch employees are voting for their boss’ boss. They may also feel incentivized to vote indirectly for the policy proposals and priorities they will later be tasked with implementing.

“They don’t get to make that choice in their workplace,” said Stier. “In the workplace, they have to follow the lead of those people who are elected by the general population. So, their one opportunity to express their views about which direction the country should go in, is the voting booth.”

How powerful are feds as voters?

In recent months especially, Republicans floated campaign planks that would directly impact federal employees’ pay, benefits, telework offerings and career stability. In the survey, most respondents ranked federal salary raises or pay reform as a top concern, followed by retirement issues and then Schedule F.

Baugus said it’s also true that government employees, by virtue of their career, may have an affinity for public policy, or they may simply know more about it than the average voter who needs to make more of an effort to stay ahead on the issues.

“[Government workers’] costs of being an informed voter are lower,” he said. “Higher incentives and lower costs usually lead to more action, in this case voting, especially since they are usually forbidden from being involved in campaigns and electioneering, so voting is their only outlet for political activity.”

It’s also true that even though government employees tend to be concentrated geographically, they are not distributed evenly. In the survey, about 75% of respondents do not live or work in the National Capital Region.

In particularly close races or in low turnout elections, a few thousand votes can be influential, Baugus said.

“[Recent presidential elections] have been close enough that almost anyone can claim to have been the margin of difference, but the stronger case can be made for motivated voting blocs like government employees,” he said.

2020 as a case study

No survey, no matter how scientific (and this one is not), can predict the exact turnout of federal employees on Nov. 5, but if past behavior is any indicator, it seems likely this population will show up.

Federal Times found 96% of respondents “definitely” voted in the 2020 presidential election, which yielded the highest turnout rate of eligible voters in any national election since 1900, according to Pew Research Center.

Respondents with whom Federal Times spoke were not surprised by the high number.

“The [colleagues] I engage with are absolutely engaged voters,” said one employee, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about their political views. “The sense of obligation is definitely there.”

How feds will vote is less clear. The deeply polarized political environment coupled with ripple effects of the pandemic, complex overseas conflicts and social pressures magnified by social media have given voters much to consider.

While most elections are contentious, Stier said the discourse around politics and attitudes on government have struck a different tenor recently.

“I think that, historically, the differences have really been about policy direction,” he added. “And again, by and large, the civil service, they’re going to do their work irrespective of whoever the political leader is. I think what has been put center stage in a much more dramatic way is this question of the nature of our government and to what end does it serve?”

Before they dropped out of the Republican race, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made a comment about “slitting throats” in the bureaucracy, and tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy vowed to reduce the federal workforce by 75%. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has pitched term limits for civil servants. And Trump, who was able to partially implement a plan to reclassify tens of thousands of federal employees to at-will status known as Schedule F, has said on the campaign trail that he’s concerned about the threat of the “deep state.”

“Normally we would not know how serious a candidate is about such actions — rhetoric is not always reality — but again, Trump is unique,” said Baugus. “We have four years’ experience, and I would think that will be the key in forming expectations.”

Most feds interviewed said a change in administration minimally impacts their day-to-day work, but employees may see policy priorities reflected in what teams are given money to hire and whether agencies backfill vacant positions.

The ‘woke’ bureaucracy? How feds lean

About 43% of respondents said they planned to vote Democrat this year compared to 33% Republican and 16% independent.

Half said they believed the Democratic party best represented the interests of the federal workforce, whereas 22% said the GOP was a better representative. Another 20% said neither were suitable, and 5% said independent third-party candidates were more in line with employees’ interests.

“[Feds] know by practice that the GOP is not worker friendly,” said retired public servant in an interview. “Schedule F initiatives solidified that view, if they weren’t already initiated and prejudiced by prior congressional and presidential temperament.”

When broken down by military service, those who identified as veterans leaned republican, while non-veterans respondents said they would vote democrat.

One combat-disabled veteran interviewed by Federal Times said it is frustrating to see the Biden administration send billions in foreign aid when the U.S. military is struggling with dilapidated barracks, recruiting shortfalls and aging tech.

“We can send money to everybody else, but we don’t have money to do things to help ourselves at home,” he said, adding that he feels there’s been a lack of decisiveness permeating U.S. foreign policy that ultimately costs more, both in dollars and reputation.

“I think that while some people look at [Trump] as being irrational or unpredictable, I think in some ways our enemies respected that,” said one service member who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect against retaliation for sharing their personal views.

When it came to other issues, roughly a quarter of respondents said they would switch their party affiliation or consider voting against their usual party of choice come November, and very few said that a conviction of Trump in court would change their opinion of him positively or negatively.

When it comes to Biden’s handling of the situation in Gaza, which has garnered criticism from employee groups in his own cabinet, about 27% said it eroded their support.

The issue of age has also come up, with several respondents telling Federal Times they were frustrated by a lack of new entrants to the race.

Roughly 57% said Biden, 81, is too old to run again, while only 34% said the same for Trump, who will be 78 come Election Day. For both candidates, around 20% said age is irrelevant either way.

‘I love what I do’

Respondents of opposing parties agreed that the civil service felt more politicized today than when they first joined. About 60% of all respondents said they felt that way, and of them, 40% said that made them want to leave government service.

“I don’t like feeling like a powerless pawn in the political mix,” said one respondent.

“Makes me glad I retired,” said another.

Still, almost every employee interviewed by Federal Times echoed the same message: they work on behalf of the American people, and they just want to be given the tools to do that.

“Our role is to support the administration, no matter who it is at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.,” said one respondent.

And while few said an election is likely to sway long-held beliefs about government, there is an opportunity for the current administration to back up its workers.

“I think the Democrats could be stronger not only to tout their accomplishments, but I think they do have to hit back on some of the bullshit that comes out of the other side,” said one employee.

Government is well-equipped to point at its own problems through audits, watchdog reports and inspectors general, Stier said, but it hasn’t been as good at messaging the things it has gotten right.

“Unfortunately, a lot of Americans don’t see they’re getting that when you ask them about the federal government,” he said. “What they really are thinking about are bickering politicians in Washington. And the best antidote for that is the truth and sunshine and ensuring that more Americans have access to information about what their public servants are doing for them.”

About the survey

Federal Times’ voluntary survey received 1,081 responses from current and former employees who worked across two dozen federal agencies and departments.

Of them, 22% lived or worked in the National Capital Region, and about 52% identified as veterans.

About 44% said they worked in a DoD-affiliated agency or branch. This is not a scientific survey.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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