By Ms. Kari Hawkins (AMCOM)August 15, 2017
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- With national, state and local elections often falling in different years, it seems like every year is an election year in Alabama.
This year is no different. On Aug. 15, voters went to the polls statewide to vote in an Alabama Special Primary Election for the U.S. senate seat vacated by Mobile native Jeff Sessions when he was named the nation's attorney general. The primaries will be followed by a Special Primary Runoff Election, if needed, on Sept. 26 and then the Special General Election on Dec. 12.
So, as voters come up on another election, it's important for federal employees to refresh their knowledge of election regulations as outlined in the Hatch Act of 1939, said Larry Wilde, an attorney for the Army Materiel Command who counsels employees on ethics.
"The nation must have a federal workforce that is free from partisan political influence or coercion, and that's why the Hatch Act is so important to our democracy," Wilde said. "The Hatch Act ensures that federal programs are administered in a nonpartisan fashion, that federal employees are protected from political coercion in the workplace and that federal employees are advanced based on merit and not based on political affiliation."
Basically, the Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activity while on duty, in a federal facility or wearing a uniform or official insignia. With a few exceptions, they may also not be candidates for public office in a partisan (party affiliated) election.
"The regulations primarily involve government employees that fall in the Executive Branch -- including Department of Defense employees -- while they are at work or in a work capacity," Wilde said. "When on official government business, government employees may not use their authority to influence or interfere with a partisan election. There are exceptions to the Hatch Act for the president and vice president."
An important restriction in the Hatch Act is that federal employees may not solicit or receive a campaign donation or contribution for a partisan political party, candidate or group at any time or place, whether on or off duty.
"When it comes to donations or contributions, the Hatch Act is very clear, but social situations and personal relationships can make it difficult for federal employees," Wilde said. "Federal employees may not host a political fundraiser, invite others to a political fundraiser or use their email or social media account to forward campaign materials that contain a link for donations."
While at work, federal employees may not distribute or display campaign materials, perform campaign related duties or wear or display partisan political buttons, T-shirts or other items. They may not post a comment on a blog or social media site or use an email account of any kind to advocate for or against a partisan political party, candidate or group.
"While the Hatch Act does have strict guidelines when political parties are involved, federal employees have more freedoms in election campaigns that are non-partisan, as frequently occurs in local elections," Wilde said. "Federal employees may be candidates in nonpartisan elections and participate in nonpartisan campaigns."
Whether partisan or not, most employees may donate money to political campaigns; attend political fundraisers and various meetings; join political clubs and parties; campaign for or against referendum questions, constitutional amendments or municipal ordinances; sign nominating petitions; and express opinions about candidates and issues when off duty and not in an official capacity.
"And, of course, when it comes to voting, all federal employees are encouraged to vote. They can also assist with voter registration drives and encourage others to vote," Wilde said.
There are a few Hatch Act rules that are somewhat different based on a federal employee's status, he said. Career Senior Executive Service employees have more restrictive rules as do all federal employees working for certain agencies, such as the Defense Intelligence Agency, National Security Council and Federal Bureau of Investigation. Wilde stressed that civilian employees should make sure they know whether they are considered "Less Restricted" or "More Restricted" for the purposes of the Hatch Act before engaging in political activity.
While less restricted employees are allowed in their off-duty time to participate in partisan elections by circulating nominating petitions, campaigning for or against candidates, making campaign speeches for candidates, distributing campaign literature and volunteering to work on campaigns, more restricted employees are barred from these activities.
"The important thing to remember is to keep partisan political views and activities separate from your work environment and your work relationships," Wilde said. "If you follow that philosophy, you will be acting in accordance with the Hatch Act."
Examples of violation of the Hatch Act include:
* Mentioning official positions in a letter endorsing a candidate in a partisan election.
* Writing a letter to endorse a candidate or working on campaign materials while in the federal workplace or while using a government computer.
* Wearing a partisan election campaign button to work (but an "issue" button may be permitted if it is not associated with a particular candidate and is not disruptive to the workplace).
* Soliciting campaign contributions for a political party on a federal employee's Facebook page, even off-duty and using an alias.
* Forwarding emails or websites with embedded links soliciting campaign contributions.
* Reading a script at a phone bank that includes a request for campaign contributions.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is responsible for interpreting and enforcing the Hatch Act. Federal employees who engage in prohibited political activities in violation of the Hatch Act may be subject to disciplinary action, including possible removal from federal service, reduction in grade or a civil penalty not to exceed $1,000.
Active duty military members are not subject to the Hatch Act, Wilde said, but follow the guidelines of DoD Directive 1344.10. The rules for Soldiers are similar to those pertaining to More Restricted civilian employees. The underlying principle of the directive is to avoid associating the Department of Defense with partisan politics.
The Hatch Act does not prohibit federal employees -- both More Restricted and Less Restricted -- "from expressing their personal opinions about candidates and the issues of the day in their personal capacities," Wilde said. "They can also contribute money to campaigns and political organizations. It crosses the line, though, when they try to influence their co-workers in the workplace to support a particular candidate or issue, or contribute money to a campaign."
*Editor's note: this article is the second of a six-part series on ethics.