Magazine article The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

Casting More Than Your Vote: The Hatch Act and Political Involvement for Law Enforcement Personnel

Magazine article The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

Casting More Than Your Vote: The Hatch Act and Political Involvement for Law Enforcement Personnel

Article excerpt

'The basis of effective government is public confidence, and that confidence is endangered when ethical standards falter or appear to falter." (1)

--John F. Kennedy

Every election year brings more than simply the ability of exercising an individual's democratic right to vote. Elections also generate questions from legions of government workers concerning the impact of the federal statute governing partisan political activity, often referred to as the Hatch Act. Most federal employees know that the act applies to them in some way but they may not know how or why. More baffled yet are the unsuspecting state and local employees who find that the act may apply to them as well. This article explores the history and rationale behind the Hatch Act as well as to whom it applies and the scope of its reach.



In 1800, President Thomas Jefferson, in response to last-minute presidential appointments of key government positions by his predecessor designed to hamper his term, issued an Executive Order that said federal workers should neither "influence the votes of others nor take part in the business of electioneering." (2) He saw such activities as being "inconsistent with the spirit of the Constitution." (3) In issuing this Executive Order, President Jefferson began what would become a long and arduous attempt to neutralize politics in federal employment.

In 1882, Senator George H. Pendleton, perhaps in response to the 1881 assassination of President Garfield by a disappointed patronage seeker, argued that "the spoils system needs to be killed or it will kill the republic." (4) His argument led to the passage of the Pendleton Act of 1883. (5) The law, in addition to creating the Civil Service Commission, sought to eliminate patronage by insulating federal employees from coercion. It provided that they could not be fired for refusing to work on behalf of a candidate or for choosing not to make campaign contributions.

In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt instituted additional measures to neutralize politics in federal employment through Executive Order 642. (6) The order forbid executive civil service employees from using their authority to interferein elections and barred federal civil servants from taking part in political management or campaigning. This order marked the first time that federal employees had limits placed on their First Amendment right to engage in political speech.

Finally, in 1939, led by the efforts of Senator Carl Hatch, Congress enacted "An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activity," which became known as the Hatch Act, out of concern that the administration, through the increase in the number of federal workers, sought to influence congressional elections. (7) Congress hoped that the act would curtail the president from meddling with elections while perpetuating his hold on the White House. The act combined the prohibitions of earlier Executive Orders and the Pendleton Act. It went further than previous attempts to end patronage by including restrictions on political activity for the entire federal bureaucracy.


Congress further extended the scope of the Hatch Act in 1940 by including state and local government employees who work in connection with federal funds in the form of aid or grants. (8) Initially, state employees were not included in the act to enable states to function independent of the federal government. However, Congress quickly changed its mind and extended the act's ethical standards to state employees whose positions are tied to federal funds. The Hatch Act was amended in 1974 to allow for greater political activity by state and local employees. (9) This liberalization was given to most federal employees in a 1993 amendment to the act. (10)


Freedom of speech is one of the "Four Cornerstones" of freedom listed in the First Amendment of the Constitution. …

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