Can Federal Employees Take Part in Political Campaign Activities? Election Do’s and Don’ts
The third installment in a series about the rules and policies federal employees should know ahead of the midterm elections.
Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of pieces that will look at the rules and laws governing federal employees’ political activities as we head into the midterm elections.
With about a month left to go until the midterm elections, campaign activities are in their final stretch and federal employees might be wondering if they can get involved.
Federal employees are subject to the Hatch Act, which restricts their political activity to various degrees, depending on their position. But the law still allows for most to do campaign-related things.
“Any federal employee, less restricted or further restricted [by the Hatch Act], can attend campaign events as long as they're off duty and they're not attending in their official capacity or anything like that,” an attorney in the Hatch Act unit of the Office of Special Counsel told Government Executive. “All employees can attend. Less restricted employees can actually speak at campaign events. But further restricted employees cannot.”
Most federal employees fall under the “less restricted” category and are afforded more ability to engage in off-the-job partisan political activity than those in the “further restricted” category, which includes federal employees at investigative and enforcement agencies. Federal employees should be aware that some agencies place employees in a further restricted category who otherwise would not be (for example the Justice, State, Homeland Security and Defense departments).
Another consideration is that “after an election, certain items that were political activity while individuals were candidates, cease to be political activity,” said the OSC attorney. “For example, if there are Senate candidates right now, displaying their campaign materials [while on the job] is going to constitute political activity because they’re partisan candidates, but once the election is over and they’re no longer active, current candidates for Senate then displaying those same candidate materials wouldn’t constitute political activity.”
Both less restricted and further restricted federal employees can put signs in their yards supporting a partisan political candidate, OSC says on its website.
The Hatch Act still applies to federal employees even if they take a leave of absence to work on a campaign.
“While the act permits less restricted employees to actively participate in partisan political management and partisan political campaigns, those employees are nevertheless prohibited, at all times, from using their official authority or influence for the purpose of affecting the result of an election; knowingly soliciting, accepting, or receiving political contributions from any person; being candidates for public office in partisan elections; and knowingly soliciting or discouraging the political activity of any individual with business before the employee's agency,” OSC stated on its website.
The same goes for further restricted employees, but they also can’t take “an active part in partisan political management and partisan political campaigns.”
More frequently asked questions and answers about campaign activities and Hatch Act considerations overall can be found on OSC’s website.
Feds Running for Office
Both less and further restricted employees can be candidates for public office in nonpartisan elections. They generally cannot be candidates in partisan elections, but there are certain circumstances in which federal employees can be independent candidates in local partisan elections, OSC said.
This past spring, the Merit Systems Protection Board issued a ruling that may cause some confusion. In one of its first decisions after regaining a quorum, the board found that federal employees can hold partisan office while keeping their jobs in the federal government. Specifically, an MSPB administrative judge previously ruled that a settlement agreement that a U.S. Postal Service employee made with OSC that allowed him to maintain both his jobs as a Postal employee and county commissioner violated the Hatch Act, but then the board overturned that decision.
Shortly after this decision, however, OSC said this was an “unusual situation” and it doesn’t plan to allow such settlement agreements going forward.