The United States is known for its two major political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. These two parties have won every presidential election since 1852 when Democrat Franklin Pierce beat the nominee of the Whig Party. In addition to the major parties, there are three minor political parties recognized by a majority of states as well as nearly 5 dozen political parties scattered across the United States and Puerto Rico.
Can civil servants join political parties? The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights gives every United States citizen the freedom of peaceful assembly, including joining a political party. However, the Hatch Act, established in 1939, prevents most federal government employees from participating in certain political activities.
The Hatch Act was created to ensure federal programs are not influenced by political party agendas and to protect employees from political coercion at work. It helps ensure that promotions are earned on merit and preserves the integrity of the bureaucracy by applying laws and regulations equally. Most importantly, it keeps the bureaucracy from using money to support political parties in exchange for government benefits.
History of the Hatch Act
The Hatch Act of 1939, named for Democratic Senator Carl Hatch, was created after the Democratic party allegedly used the Works Progress Administration to influence the congressional elections during the middle of President Roosevelt’s second-term. A series of newspaper articles uncovered political contributions that were made in exchange for employment with the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA employed millions of people who performed jobs such as the construction of public buildings and roads.
Preventing government employees from making financial gain promises, like employment, in exchange for political support is just one restriction listed under the Hatch Act. The law also forbids the intimidation or bribery of voters by government employees. On top of limiting the political activities of government employees, the Hatch Act prohibits using public works money for election purposes.
One of the provisions of the Hatch Act is intended to prevent federal employees from joining political parties whose intent is to overthrow the current government system. Examples of this type of political party included the Communist Party USA and the German-American Bund who was in support of Nazi Germany. In July of 1940, an amendment was added that extended the Hatch Act to include certain state and local government positions. Any government employee position that is funded by federal money must abide by the Hatch Act.
Additions and Changes
The Reform Amendment of 1993 removed the restriction that stated federal employees cannot participate in political management or campaigning for a candidate. It did not affect the rule against using one’s authority to influence elections. It also remained true that while on duty, federal employees are not allowed to run in partisan elections, ask for or receive political contributions, or participate in any political activity on federal property.
President Barack Obama signed into law the Modernization Act of 2012 that changed the penalties associated with violating the Hatch Act. This allowed for disciplinary actions to be taken in addition to the removal of the federal employee from their position. The Modernization Act added clarifications regarding government employees located in the District of Columbia. The Modernization Act also changed the restriction of running for office to government employees whose salary is entirely funded with federal loans or grants.
Current Hatch Act Restrictions
The following is a list of partisan political activities that most government employees are forbidden to do:
- Be a candidate in a partisan election
- Use their authority to tamper with an election
- Use their authority to interfere while participating in allowed partisan activities
- Influence lower-level employees through invitations to political events or coercion to participate in political activities
- Ask for or dissuade the political activity of anyone who engages with their agency of employment
- Solicit, accept, or receive political contributions including hosting a fundraiser or inviting others to a political fundraiser unless all of the following are true:
- Both persons belong to the same federal labor or employee organization
- The person being solicited is not a subordinate employee
- The solicitation is designated for the organization’s political action committee
- The solicitation does not occur while on duty or in the place of employment
- Engage in political activity while on duty, while at work, while wearing a uniform or official insignia, or while in a government vehicle.
- Wearing, displaying, or distributing partisan items such as pins and stickers or handing out other materials like pamphlets or flyers
- Perform campaign-related duties
- Make political contributions
- Use email or social media to engage in political activity
Political Activities of Armed Forces Members
The United States Department of Defense has explicit rules regarding how military members engage in political activities. These rules are designed to prevent any appearance of political bias by members of the armed forces. This is because the military takes direction from and must follow the orders of the Commander in Chief and Congress without regard to personal political affiliation.
Wondering about civil service? Read more here: https://civilservicehq.com/how-to-be-a-g ood-public-servant-6-expert-tips/
The rules laid out by the Department of Defense apply to the following people and agencies:
- Office of the Secretary of Defense
- The Department of the Army
- The Department of the Navy
- The Department of the Air Force
- The Coast Guard
- The National Guard
- Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
- The Eleven Combatant Commands
- Special Operations
- Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Defense
- All 45 Defense Agencies and Department of Defense Field Activities
The Department of Defense encourages its members to be participants in the democracy of our government in the same way citizens do. They promote registering to vote, participating in the voting process, and expressing a personal opinion on political candidates and issues, but they can not speak or act as a representative of the armed forces.
There are several other political activities members of the Department of Defense are permitted to do as long as they are done out of uniform and the activities do not interfere with military duty.
- Advocate voting and promote others to vote without the use of authority and without influencing or impeding the results of an election
- Join a partisan or nonpartisan political party and attend their meetings
- Serve as an election official as long as it doesn’t represent a partisan political party and only if it has been approved by the requisite Secretary
- Sign petitions for legislation or placing of a candidate’s name on a ballot
- Make a financial donation to a political organization, party, or committee
- Display political bumper stickers on personal vehicle
Restricted Activity of the Department of Defense Members
The Department of Defense has an extensive list of political activities that members are forbidden to do while on active duty. This means they cannot engage in partisan political activity while in uniform so as not to portray a political bias of the Department of Defense. One example is active participation in a partisan political fundraiser, rally, or convention. Also, members of the armed forces are not permitted to manage campaigns or participate in debates on anyone’s behalf.
Other examples include:
- Hold any official office in a partisan political club or be listed as a sponsor
- Participate in providing voters with a ride to the polling place if the endeavor was organized by or associated with a partisan political party
- Address a partisan political gathering including those intended to promote a partisan political party, candidate, or cause
- Take part in group discussions or interviews on radio, television, or any other media in support of or against a partisan political party, candidate, or cause
- Solicit, or participate in fundraising activities in federal buildings or military reservations
- Display signs, posters, or banners of political parties at one’s residence on a military installation
How old do you have to be to join a political party?
The Young Democrats of America allow members as young as 8 to become affiliated with the Democratic Party. Their focus is primarily on improving voter turnout of young people by getting them involved in the issues affecting their demographic. The Young Republicans is a group for members ages 18-40 with outreach programs for youth aged 13-18. In addition to political activities, they host social engagements and networking events.
Who enforces the Hatch Act?
The Hatch Act is enforced by the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) and the Office of Special Counsel (OSC). The MSPB was established to oversee the federal merit system to prevent political influence and protect federal employees from abuse by management. The OSC is a federal investigative agency with prosecution power that oversees the Hatch Act, the Whistleblower Protection Act, the Civil Service Reform Act, and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.
What are the penalties for violating the Hatch Act?
There is a wide range of punishments that can occur when a person is found guilty of violating the Hatch Act. Actions of discipline can be as minor as receiving a letter of reprimand for the violation and as severe as complete removal from federal service. Other types of punishments that could be given include expulsion from federal service for up to five years, a reduction in grade, or a civil penalty of up to $1000.
To learn how to best prepare and study for your civil servant exam click here!
Interested to learn more about the civil service? Check out our free guide here: https://civilservicehq.com/
Please note: This blog post is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Please consult a legal expert to address your specific needs.
Hi! I’m Shawn Chun and I’m so grateful that you’re here.
Civil servants are some of the hardest working, most generous people I know. I have been passionate about all types of civil service career paths for years now and enjoy sharing everything I continue to learn about them.
Civil Service HQ strives to be the ultimate resource for learning everything about a career within the civil service.
Our mission is to empower you with information to help you decide which civil servant career path is best for you and to provide you with the tools needed to increase your chance of success in that career path.