It will soon be election time once again, and I'll try, as always, to do my civic duty: register to vote, study the issues, listen to the speeches and select the candidates of my choice. I may even make a humble financial contribution to some campaign. I want to do more. I would like to go down to the local campaign headquarters of my candidate and stuff envelopes, answer phones or even make a speech on my candidate's behalf at the local chamber of commerce. But if I did any of these things I would be guilty of a federal crime, and I would immediately be fired from my job.
Thanks to the Hatch Act, federal employees do not enjoy the same political freedoms routinely exercised by every other American. The rationale for this curious exception to the Constitution is a fear that government employees might somehow use their office unduly to influence the outcome of an election, that bureaucrats might conspire with incumbent politicians to subvert the will of the electorate. In fact, there is at least an equal probability that employees will oppose the incumbent administration, rather than support it. But leaving all this grand speculation aside, in practice the Hatch Act is simply an absurd example of government intrusion at its worst.
In 1984 a friend from my college days ran in the Democratic primary for a seat in the Pennsylvania legislature. I briefly entertained the fantasy of visiting him in Philadelphia and helping him plot campaign strategy over a glass of his mother's homemade iced tea. Had I done so, however, it would have been an interstate crime, since I was then living in Phoenix, Ariz., as a low-level employee of the Social Security Administration. But for the life of me I couldn't imagine anything I could have done in my official capacity that would have provoked the slightest notice in Philadelphia!
Clearly there is a legitimate public interest to be served here. It would be wholly unobjectionable to have a law that forbade government workers from using their offices, or work time, to support a partisan political effort. But unfortunately, that's not what the Hatch Act does. The act prohibits government employees from spending their own time and resources on behalf of their chosen candidates. It prohibits me from suggesting silly campaign ideas to an old friend. The Hatch Act forbids me to spend my Saturdays stuffing envelopes on behalf of Harold Stassen's latest presidential campaign. Or from making a fool of myself before the local chamber of commerce.
No other group of citizens must endure such restrictions on their constitutional rights. Imagine if we tried to impose such limits on political expression based on race or gender. How is it then that we can blithely impose them on the basis of occupation?
Believe it or not, my modest political activities are not now -- nor have they ever been -- a threat to the stability of the republic. The Hatch Act is, however, an ever-present danger to me, my livelihood and perhaps even my freedom. If some politician who had the courage to advocate abolition of this act were to come along, I just might find the courage to go down to his campaign headquarters and stuff a few envelopes. -- Larry DeWitt