Hatch Act permits range of feds’ political action

Joe Davidson
Columnist September 25, 2012

Attention feds: You can vote for your boss, or to get a new one.

Some federal employees apparently don’t realize they are allowed to vote for president and in other elections because of confusion over the Hatch Act, says Carolyn Lerner.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

She wants to end the confusion.

 Lerner heads the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), which enforces the Hatch Act. While the law restricts political participation by federal workers, employees can do much more than some realize.

“People think they can’t vote sometimes,” she said. “They are really afraid of the Hatch Act and running afoul of the act.”

Be not afraid, feds. Your vote is welcomed and encouraged. But not all political activity is.

With Election Day quickly approaching, Lerner was happy to discuss the many ways federal employees can participate in the electoral process, and the restrictions designed to foster an independent civil service. The agency’s Web site provides helpful guidance.

“Federal employees, for the most part, can participate,” she said. “The rules are pretty simple. They shouldn’t . . . engage in political activity at work or use government resources, they shouldn’t direct any political information to colleagues at work, and fundraising is never allowed.”

That’s pretty clear. But if it were really so simple, there wouldn’t be so much confusion.

For example, federal employees are prohibited at all times and in all places from soliciting contributions for a candidate. That includes organizing fundraisers and asking others to donate. Yet, an employee may give money to a political campaign and attend fundraisers.

And with the onslaught of social media, Lerner’s office has had to address a new set of issues, which it did with the “Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Social Media and the Hatch Act” guidance issued in April.

“It can be confusing,” Lerner acknowledged. “But what we hope people understand is that they can engage” in political activity.

Yet, Uncle Sam never makes things simple when they can be complicated. Restrictions can differ depending on where you work. Most federal workers are classified as “less restricted employees,” and they have a greater range of permitted political activities than “further restricted employees.”

OSC says less restricted employees:

●“May be candidates for public office in nonpartisan elections.

●May register and vote as they choose.

●May assist in voter registration drives.

●May contribute money to political campaigns, political parties or partisan political groups.

●May attend political fundraising functions.

●May attend and be active at political rallies and meetings.

●May join and be an active member of political clubs or parties.

●May hold office in political clubs or parties.

●May sign and circulate nominating petitions.

●May campaign for or against referendum questions, constitutional amendments or 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 volunteer to work on a partisan political campaign.

●May express opinions about candidates and issues” under certain conditions.

“Further restricted employees” are allowed to do most, but not all of these activities.

A key difference is these workers “are prohibited from taking an active part in partisan political management or partisan political campaigns.”

“Further restricted employees” generally “consist of employees in intelligence and enforcement-type agencies,” says the Web site, where the restricted list can be found. Senior Executive Service members, regardless of agency, are on that list.

Under Defense Department policy, active-duty service members also can participate in the political process more freely than many may realize.

“In general, active duty Service members may . . . express personal opinions about political candidates and issues, but not as a representative of the U.S. military; join a political club and attend partisan and nonpartisan political meetings, debates, conventions, or activities as a spectator, when not in uniform; sign a petition to place a candidate’s name on an official election ballot; make monetary contributions to a political campaign or [party]; display a political bumper sticker on a personal vehicle; write a letter to the editor or post a blog, stating a personal opinion,” according to a Pentagon memorandum issued in June.

In case there is any doubt, “vote” is the first item on the Pentagon’s lists of permitted political activities for uniformed personnel and DOD civilians, who are covered by the Hatch Act.

It’s “really a shame” that some federal employees think they are prohibited from engaging in the political process, Lerner said. It’s “certainly not what the Hatch Act was intended to do.”

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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