[ The Real McCoy Online Home ]                                                                                                                          May 9, 2008
News

Hatch Act sets political 
participation guidelines

      It's possible to fulfill important roles in the local, state and federal election processes as a federal employee, but it's important not to forget the special obligations of federal service. If you're not sure, ask your supervisor.

      The Hatch Act of 1939 is a U.S. federal law whose main purpose is to prohibit federal employees from engaging in partisan political activity. Named after Sen. Carl Hatch of New Mexico, the law was officially known as: "An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities."

      Pernicious is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as "highly injurious or destructive: Deadly." Problem is, modern technology allows more ways than ever for federal employees, even innocently, to have a pernicious effect on their careers.

      The upcoming election season is a good time to reflect on what political activities the Hatch Act does -- and does not -- allow federal employees to engage in. 

Federal employees may:

  • Be a candidate in a nonpartisan political election (that is, an election where the candidate is not running as a member of a political party; examples include city council and school board elections).

  • Register and vote as they choose.

  • Assist in voter registration drives.

  • Express opinions about candidates and issues.

  • Attend fund-raisers and contribute money to political organizations and campaigns.

  • Volunteer on a campaign.

  • Recruit volunteers for a political campaign.

  • Participate in activities such as phone banking and precinct walking.

  • Display bumper stickers, lawn signs, and other campaign paraphernalia.

  • Raise money for their union's political action committee from other union members.

  • Volunteer, run for, and hold an office in a local or state political party.

Federal employees may not:

  • Be a candidate in a political election in which any candidate represents a political party.

  • Raise money for a partisan political campaign.

  • Allow their names to be used in any fund-raising appeal on behalf of a partisan political campaign.

  • Participate in a phone bank that is engaged in fund-raising for a partisan campaign.

  • Raise money for their union's political action committee from people other than their fellow union members.

New technology, and the Hatch Act

      Information and computer technology today create situations that Sen. Hatch could have scarcely dreamed of in 1939. The recent wave of new technology developments has led to the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) receiving many calls from federal employees asking new questions about which activities are and are not allowed.

      For example, some employees might have blogs. Or federal employees may want to post an on-line comment to a political news story. Federal employees blogging or posting comments about the election on their own time is not a problem, but posting even a short entry made at work could lead to trouble.

OSC advises employees:

  • They must be especially careful if their blogging activity is focused on the success or failure of a political party.

  • Blogging for or against a political party or candidate cannot take place when an employee is on duty, in a federal building or government vehicle, or via remote access to the agency's computer network.

          This would include agency provided Blackberries and laptop computers.

  • Federal employees must never solicit campaign contributions.

          The OSC is particularly concerned that blogs are interactive and allow readers to leave comments. If someone reads   your blog, gets excited about your advocacy and posted a sentence saying 'here is a link to contribute,' it may not constitute a violation, but if someone files a complaint, OSC would have to investigate to make a determination.

Political contributions and fund-raising

      Federal employees are free to express their political opinions on their own blogs and those belonging to political parties and candidates, so long as they do it off duty. But there are several areas of concern.

      For example:

  • Campaign sites typically have a "contribute" button next to the comment text boxes. Make sure there is no appearance that you are doing any fund-raising if you are posting anything on a campaign Web site.

  • Employees must not identify themselves in their official capacity when they post their opinions.

  • Federal employees should be cautious when joining group blogs.

      One OSC official pointed out particular problems "if employees appear as a member of a group blog and there are 'contribution' buttons on the site it could look like fund-raising."

      So if you do not have control over the content, be careful about joining a group blog.

E-mail

      During lunch periods or on breaks and if there is no hindrance to the agency servers employees are free to access personal e-mail using agency computers and devices, even if the content is highly political. They are not considered to be engaging in political activity, so long as only they read the material.

      It becomes a problem under the Hatch Act if they take the e-mail, print it out, and distribute it or forward it to others while on agency property or on duty or during work hours.

      Employees also must not do this when they are remotely linked to their agency's network.

(Submitted by Fort McCoy Installation Legal Office.)

 

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